I am back! The last six weeks have taken me on three trips in a series of rejuvenating, wonder-filled days, and I feel refreshed, ready to dive into the big projects I’ve cleared my schedule for. Travel holds a different purpose for all of us, I think, but to me, being elsewhere presents the opportunity to observe how other people live their lives. I like architecture, art, and museums; I love food; I like biking and walking and sipping wine at lunch. But most of all, I want to watch the people, gauge their routines, and take in the character of a place.

And maybe that’s what’s most refreshing to me, the pop of the bubble of our own habits and outlooks with the reminder that there are so many ways to go about a day, including a whole lot of hanging out in outdoor cafes and squares in the evening, the way people do from Cuba to Marseille. We don’t have enough of that.

Coming home, of course, means a return to routine, and a lot of that is downright good no matter what everyone else around the world is doing. Cooking again is especially good. Last night, our first night back, as we struggled to stay awake, I made my signature braised broccoli with pasta, a dish that’s less pretty than this one but that takes cues from the same everyday need for something simple and rustic that also contains plenty of green. I’ll share that recipe here with you one day–it’s a great one, if ugly. But first, this bowl of slurpy cool ramen, which I made before we left. Half inspired by pesto pasta, half by ginger-scallion noodles, the concoction is rich, bright, spicy, and smooth.

I’m not a freezer hoarder, but I do keep Stonefire naan and pizza crusts in there for last-minute dinners like barbecue chicken pizza. But the convenience of these quick-to-reheat breads doesn’t mean they’re limited to desperate weeknights. On special occasions, the naan and the crusts come in handy too. This dish makes the most of two particularly special ingredients, smoked salmon and salmon roe, to turn mini naan into gorgeous, fancy bases for a Mother’s Day lunch or appetizer.

Growing up, Mother’s Day wasn’t a huge holiday for us (every day is mother’s day, says my mom), but if we did end up seeing my grandma, we probably ate smoked salmon, as we did on almost any holiday. While my grandma picked out only the best nova–thinly sliced, not too salty–she was agnostic about the vessel we ate it on. We had bagels, pumpernickel slices, and flatbread crackers.

That’s why I don’t feel even a little weird that I’ve stretched salmon’s traditional bagel and cream cheese pairing here using inspiration from Indian cuisine. Instead of bagel or pumpernickel, we’ve got warm naan. In place of cream cheese, a thick raita tweaked with horseradish. And to finish things off so this is fancy enough for a Mother’s Day celebration or a cocktail party anytime, I garnished with salmon roe, dill, and chives. This should all be close enough to the classic for you to imagine, easily, how good everything tastes together.

Herbed Tuna Melts

Posted by on Monday May 4th, 2015

Nothing fancy here! On the other hand, I recently assembled a green rice bowl with about sixteen elements. When I’ve been away from the kitchen for a while. I often want to get all the dishes and cutting boards dirty. This has been a spring season of travel, but when I’ve been home in the interludes my desire to cook has swelled so immensely, the kitchen time I’ve put in might even out with a regular month.

That impulse eases, sometimes after an accompanying closet reorganization, and I get back to simple food, food that bucks all the weird …

Cacio E Pepe

Posted by on Wednesday Apr 29th, 2015

Pasta is important when you want to feed yourself well on a regular basis, and so I’m delighted to introduce a new post by Carly Diaz, one that’s about loving pasta in its homeland, Italy, and bringing it back home to the kitchen. Don’t miss her last story, about gyeongdan–Korean sweet rice cakes.

There is nothing that makes you feel like you’ve crossed over into adulthood like boarding a plane unaccompanied and destined for an international adventure on your own. When I was 20, I headed to Rome for a summer abroad program comprised of two courses: Roman Art and Architecture and Italian Film. Unofficially, I planned to study how to fill myself with pasta and vino on a student budget. It was my first experience traveling alone in a foreign country and I was eager to seem confident as I explored all aspect of Italian culture, especially its cuisine.

On the first evening at student orientation, I was introduced to Roman-style pizza topped with potatoes. Carb overload and delicious. The next day, I went to a restaurant in a few streets down from my apartment in the Trastevere neighborhood. I can’t recall what drew me to that particular restaurant, but I vividly remember the ravioli and how I nearly melted into my plate at the first bite.

I was completely sold on ravioli, ordering it at nearly every restaurant until I found myself in a small village on the outskirts of Rome renowned for its gnocchi that restaurants cooked up every Wednesday. Then I was ordering gnocchi at every turn.

I had consumed plenty of pasta in my life, but eating pasta in Italy is an experience unto itself. Each dish was better than the last, I thought it couldn’t get any better. And then, I was told I needed to try cacio e pepe. “It’s pasta with cheese and pepper. Delicious!” Not exactly an award-winning sales pitch, but I was dedicated to culinary exploration. The next time I saw cacio e pepe on a restaurant menu, I reluctantly passed over the ravioli, gnocchi and tortellini and ordered a plate. Delivered steaming, the twirls of noodles looked unremarkable. As I plunged my fork into the bowl, I observed an abundance of melting cheese and flakes of pepper.

Batido de Mango

Posted by on Monday Apr 27th, 2015

Throughout Central and South America, you can taste fruity milkshakes made out of local tropical fruit from papaya to mamey. They’re thick, cold, and delicious, but they don’t leave you feeling as indulged as a hot fudge ice cream milkshake.

Before I left for Cuba, I checked a cookbook out of the library, to brief myself on what I’d be eating. The book, written by a Cuban-American who grew up in Cuban Miami, promised plenty of rice and beans, all kinds of sandwiches on freshly baked bread (not just “Cuban sandwiches”), and fruity milkshakes, also known there as batidos. Excellent, I thought.

Mango Smoothie RecipeBut then when I got to Cuba, I didn’t see any fruit milkshakes, not anywhere. I would have looked for them at the stalls of big markets, but there weren’t any big markets. Instead, the Cubans I saw queuing up for cold treats were in from of the ice cream parlors (and man, did they queue!). At breakfasts at the hotels and casa particuliers, we drank incredible fresh juices from papaya, pineapple, and mango. But no batidos.

The Food Markets of Cuba

Posted by on Thursday Apr 23rd, 2015

In Cuba last month, I kept my eyes on the food.

In a world where we’re always seeking out the new, making and remaking an old favorite has the advantage of propelling us towards perfection.

That’s what happened when Alex and I made pasta with tomato sauce a weekly dinner staple, its assembly a cherished routine. He makes the sauce, and I assemble the dish. As he’s grown to know exactly how the garlic should look and smell when you’re ready to add the tomatoes, I’ve determined the right scale of acidity to richness (olive oil, parmesan), and how to melt mozzarella in the bottom of the bowl so each forkful of pasta includes a cheese pull. These days, our pasta with tomato sauce has gotten really good, because of a few particular ingredients and techniques.

I know this might sound simple, even trivial, the idea of going through a dish that a lot of you could make in your sleep in such detail. But with a couple extra flourishes and some mastery of timing, I think you can transform a ho hum dinner into the kind of food that reminds you why you cook, why you eat, and why you rarely need to order take-out.

For a two-person dinner and leftovers, you’ll need 3/4 pound of pasta (any shape), one 28-ounce can of whole plum tomatoes, an onion, as much garlic as you can stand peeling, a hunk of parm to grate, and some good olive oil (if you care). I sometimes put mozzarella into my pasta, but the dish is also good without.

Here’s the step by step.