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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

A Tiger in the Kitchen (and zucchini souffle!)

new coverRemember when I was at Yaddo last April? (Sheesh, I can’t believe it’s going on a year ago already.) Well, when I walked into the common room my first evening there, we were doing the usual introductions and one of my new friends said, ‘ Wait a minute—I’ve read your book!’ Cheryl turned out to be the social glue the whole time I was there, always hatching plans for fun things to do in the evenings, acquiring bruises all over in the name of PIG (official rules posted here, also thanks to Cheryl), and taking wonderful pictures to remember each other by.

I blog family recipes from time to time, and you all know how fond I am of my grandparents, so of course Cheryl’s new memoir, A Tiger in the Kitchen, is right up my alley. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet (it’ll be waiting for me when I come home next month), but here’s the book description:

After growing up in the most food-obsessed city in the world, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan left home and family at eighteen for America—proof of the rebelliousness of daughters born in the Year of the Tiger. But as a thirtysomething fashion writer in New York, she felt the Singaporean dishes that defined her childhood beginning to call her back. Was it too late to learn the secrets of her grandmothers’ and aunties’ kitchens, as well as the tumultuous family history that had kept them hidden before? In her quest to recreate the dishes of her native Singapore by cooking with her family, Tan learned not only cherished recipes but long-buried stories of past generations.

A Tiger in the Kitchen, which includes ten authentic recipes for Singaporean classics such as pineapple tarts and Teochew braised duck, is the charming, beautifully written story of a Chinese-Singaporean ex-pat who learns to infuse her New York lifestyle with the rich lessons of the Singaporean kitchen, ultimately reconnecting with her family and herself.

Cheryl's author photo, taken by John Searles (another Yaddo buddy!)

Cheryl’s author photo, taken by John Searles (another Yaddo buddy!)

Now, Cheryl has some pretty sophisticated tastebuds (as evidenced by her popular blog), but she’s no ‘food snob.’ Recently a reader commented that her grandmother’s recipe for pineapple tart was ‘run of the mill’, which of course annoyed anybody who ever had a grandmother. My grandmom Kass’ cooking is unabashedly ‘run of the mill’—simple, no-fuss recipes for good old-fashioned comfort food. So what if the zucchini soufflé recipe calls for Bisquick? I’ll take my grandmother’s cooking over haute cuisine any day. (Besideswhich, those pineapple tarts look pretty extraordinary to me! Bewitching bite-sized marvels, indeed.)

Ever hear that saying, ‘every time an old person dies a library burns’? So far as I’ve observed, my grandparents’ generation were and are a humble bunch, and they don’t think too much about posterity or how valuable their life experiences are. Family recipes are a huge part of this trove of knowledge. Grandmom Kass learned how to cook from her aunt, because her own mother wasn’t exactly Betty Crocker (we heard stories of how she used to dump sugar on the salad, and her jello always came served with a nice thick skin on top). Pumpkin soup, onion pie, creamy horseradish carrots, broccoli baked with cheese and breadcrumbs, rice pudding, depression cake…for me, my grandmother’s culinary repertoire typifies mid-century blue-collar Philadelphia—nothing fancy, just good, wholesome food. (Though by ‘wholesome,’ I don’t necessarily mean healthy. Philly is best known for cheesesteaks, pizzas, and spaghetti-meatball dinners, after all.) None of those recipes are original, but to me they are hers. She could have made up her own, of course, but I don’t think it’s ever occurred to her. Every cook makes her own modifications as she works, and given that she probably added a dash of this and a pinch of that without ever making a note of it, I doubt my versions of her signature dishes will ever taste as good as hers; but at least we have the recipes, and every time we make one we’ll think of her.

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So to celebrate the publication of A Tiger in the Kitchen, I’d like to share my grandmother’s recipe for zucchini soufflé.* This one is, hands down, my favorite of everything she has ever made. It’s light and delicately flavorful and I always try to snag a nice golden-crusty corner piece.

Combine in mixing bowl:

–3 cups grated zucchini
–1/2 cup vegetable oil
–1 cup Bisquick mix
–4 eggs
–1/2 cup grated parmesan
–1 small onion, grated

Mix well, spoon into greased two-quart casserole dish. Bake at 325º for 50-60 minutes. Serves 6-8.


*From The Best of the Zucchini Recipes Cookbook, compiled by Helen and Emil Dandar and published locally in 1988; this recipe was submitted by Antonette Biasotto of Newark, Delaware.

Happy Pub Day, Cheryl!

(Note: A veganized recipe is forthcoming.)

7 Comments to A Tiger in the Kitchen (and zucchini souffle!)

  1. Ailbhe Slevin's Gravatar Ailbhe Slevin
    February 8, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    My favourite cookery book is one I stole from my mother called ‘Full and Plenty’ by Maura Laverty. Each chapter (Meat, Fish, Cakes etc.) opens with a short story from the author’s own home town, most of which feature a worthy spinster who makes it off the shelf thanks to her wholesome, honest-to-God cooking.
    Sample opening paragraph:
    ‘On a bleak day, even to think of Statia Dunne’s stew brings comfort. That was a monarch among stews. It won Statia many a compliment. It won her a husband – and that at an age when she had almost given up hope of every having a man of her own to cook for’
    Despite not being ‘the type to catch a man’s eye’ Statia’s mighty stew lands her the village doctor, no less!
    I used to pour over this book while my mother baked on wet Saturday afternoons… the pages are still speckled with flour and fat, and have pencil written notes in the margins. A real treasure.

  2. February 8, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Oh, Camille, I so love this story. Your grandmom Kass sounds like she was quite a woman! That zucchini casserole sounds just delicious. Thanks for sharing this recipe and story — and for helping me celebrate the day! Hope to clink a glass with you soon, Missy! I can’t believe it’s been almost a year since we first PIG-ged. Safe travels…

  3. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    February 8, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t realize that Bisquick went into the zucchini soufle!
    Your comment about Bisquick reminds me of the story that Jill told me. She described a biscuit as tasting “Bisquicky” (meaning it as a compliment) and the woman she said it to got horribly offended.

  4. February 8, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    I am totally going to make this sometime.

  5. February 8, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Ailbhe, that sounds like the most entertaining cookbook ever! As for pages speckled in flour and fat, I’ve thought about getting one of those plastic cookbook-holders, but I kind of like leaving my mark on my favorite cookbooks, so that someone someday will know how much I loved a particular recipe.

  6. February 8, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m just sorry I won’t be clinking with you at your launch party!

  7. February 10, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    I love unpretentious cooking. Funny thing is, famous chefs are now embracing “white trash” cooking. A former Top Chef contestant is now the chef at Beechwood in LA, and she has a pimento cheese appetizer in the menu. Anyway, I agree, that generation is the greatest.

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.