A few years ago, I was going to dinner at some friends’ house and pondering what to bring. I dug around and found, in a cookbook I hardly ever used, a recipe for pork empa-nadas with olives, capers, raisins, and hard-cooked egg. Including the notes, the recipe was almost three pages long and fussy about fractions of teaspoons. But I never forgot it, because the empanadas were out of this world. I even made it again, once.
CINDY’S SUPPER CLUB: Meals From Around the World to Share With Family and Friends
The book was “Big Small Plates,” by Cindy Pawlcyn, a California chef whose curiosity and inventiveness know no bounds. Now with five books and four restaurants (including Mustards Grill in Napa), Pawlcyn remains irrepressibly global in her cooking style. Her latest book, “Cindy’s Supper Club: Meals From Around the World to Share With Family and Friends,” offers internationally based menus — all-Peruvian, say, or all-Moroccan, or all-Korean (although it’s more fun to mix and match). Cooking from it is like reading a writer with an enormous vocabulary: challenging at times, but also palpably mind-expanding.
A Peruvian mushroom ceviche is a thought-provoking departure, if you’re used to fish or shellfish ceviche. It’s sour and strong, and I couldn’t quite decide if I like my mushrooms to talk back so much. But a dose of garlic and ginger and the varying textures of sweet potatoes and corn nuts keep the dish from becoming full.
In a Flemish meatloaf with spicy tomato gravy, warm spices such as ginger, cinnamon, and cloves are the surprise, in just enough quantities for you to know they’re there without overwhelming the marriage of meat and sauce. It comes out tasting like medieval comfort food, if you can imagine such a thing.
There’s pure decadence in scallops poached in clarified Irish butter. Pawlcyn isn’t about to let so unctuous a dish stand on its own. So leeks and peas and peppery watercress cut the fat, while a parsley-breadcrumb gremolata lends some crunch. It doesn’t hurt to serve it with a wonderfully, uncharacteristically simple grilled asparagus, drizzled with olive oil and scattered with shreds of briny ricotta salata.
One of my culinary staples is a more or less North Indian red lentil stew. Pawlcyn’s spiced red lentil stew is Ethiopian, but startlingly similar in many of the spices. With the toasting and grinding and sieving of spices, Pawlcyn’s takes twice as long, but you could argue it’s at least twice as good as others.
Best of all is a Georgian “pressed” chicken with walnut and beet sauces, which explodes with complementary flavors; grated beets are tart yet cold and creamy, walnuts smooth as hummus. Pawlcyn’s way with the chicken is a slow technique, the joints weighted down with a pot full of water, slowly seething and browning in butter. The skin sticks a little, but it’s all the better at the end when you’re scraping the pan (trust me, you will).
Asian dishes seem sparer and more conventional. There is nothing wrong with asparagus with cloud ear mushrooms and tofu, with its gentle tinge of ginger, and wakame-cucumber salad has a refreshingly sweet rice vinegar acidity. A vegetable side of grilled zucchini gets a nice pairing of rough, minty fresh tomato sauce.
On the other end of the spectrum is a macadamia and coconut tart, or the macadamia version of a pecan pie, and so rich you feel guilty just looking at it. You can make it Pawlcyn’s way, which is the hard way, with various knives cutting the butter into the flour. Or you can take the sinner’s shortcut, as I did, by blitzing together the dough and chopping the nuts in a food processor.
I really only pulled it out from fatigue. Dealing with many small quantities of finely chopped or ground ingredients occasionally made for an arduous week of testing. Yet despite the many sources and cuisines Pawlcyn draws from, I never ran into an ingredient I couldn’t find (or easily substituted something else suggested). And I never came across a technique that didn’t work. A few of the dishes introduced me to new geographies of taste, allowing me to share in Pawlcyn’s enthusiastic open-mindedness about the world’s many flavors. Isn’t that worth a little extra chopping?