Cooking "With" Christine Ha: A Look Inside Recipes from My Home Kitchen

As Christine Ha's official stalker biggest fan, I was naturally excited to get her cookbook home and start testing out her Recipes from My Home Kitchen--especially after I attended Ha's recent book signing without making a complete idiot out of myself (I hope), or getting arrested for Aggravated Fangirldom.

Recipes from My Home Kitchen has a great mix of recipes, all of which emphasize "comfort" foods of both American and Asian origin. I spent a day or two reading through the book, marking the recipes that caught my eye. I have very little experience cooking Asian cuisine, so I was anxious to try a few of those right off the bat. I was very intrigued that Christine's chapter on Western Classics included four Italian recipes--spaghetti sauce, and three pasta dishes! This Italian girl was ready to throw it down with all kinds of noodles.

But first, clams. In the chapter "Food for Casual Gatherings" a Thai Basil Clams recipe immediately grabbed my attention. I love--love, love, love--steamed clams. My dad used to bring them home from the store in the summer, and we (he and I) would eat 'em by the bagful while my allergic mother and brother wrinkled their noses at disgust (jealousy) at our butter-covered chins and fingers. As an adult I almost never make them at home. Why? I'm married to a geologist, and a girl can only listen to so many lectures on bivalves.

Since mussels were on special at the store, we used a combination of clams and mussels for our version of Nghêu Húng Qu. The process was as simple--and the outcome as elegant--as promised. Simply heat garlic in oil, add seeded and chopped chili peppers, toss in some dry white wine, fish sauce, sugar, black pepper, and oyster sauce and then add the clams. Cook until those little bivalves open up, add the Thai basil, cook a few minutes longer, and voila. The dish is rich and delicious, but still light. It would be a shame to waste the liquor, so do toss some noodles or sop up with some bread.

My next experiment was less successful, but trust me when I tell you--blame the cook. I attempted Pad See Ew from the "Bowl of Comfort" chapter, and my inexperience with rice noodles hampered the final product. How so? I ended up with what I call "rice noodle nuggets"--sure, they tasted good, but yikes. I got the "ew" part right, anyway. Time to start practicing with rice noodles! A more successful recipe from the same chapter was Co'm Chiên Sôt Cà Chua, or Ketchup Fried Rice. A great way to use up leftover rice from take-out Chinese, this cooked up quickly and calls for things you likely already have on hand: ketchup, soy sauce, onion, eggs. Ha recommends something called "Maggi sauce" which we found at 99 Ranch Market. Knowing about Maggi sauce was worth the price of the cookbook alone. I have put this on EVERYTHING since we bought a bottle, including Ha's "Sunny Side Up Eggs with Baguette" recipe--a hangover killer of the highest order.

I had to give Christine's Italian recipes a whirl, and I particularly enjoyed the Penne a la Vodka that I whipped up one day on my lunch break. I had some leftover sauce on hand already (my husband's) so I used that rather than peel and blanch fresh tomatoes. Vodka sauce is something I have only ever ordered in restaurants--it just wasn't in my grandmother's or father's repertoire--and never really thought about trying at home; I like to drink my vodka at dinner. I omitted the pancetta and sausage, having neither in the fridge, and subbed a big handful of parsley for the recommended basil. Now that I think about it, I used shells instead of penne. I really ran with this one. This weekend I'll be making her baked ziti recipe which calls for sour cream--I can't wait to tell my dad about it.

Finally, I tried my hand at another of my restaurant favorites, Chicken Tikka Masala. This one was a lot of fun, and full of flavor; my husband announced it's going into our regular rotation starting immediately. In fact, I got an awful lot of compliments from him on most of these dishes and I'm going to hope it's due to my improving culinary skills, and not his own rabid crush on the cookbook author.

Now, I'm off to buy more rice noodles. Wish me luck.

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Christina Uticone