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Cooking together, cooking apart

Right now, separated from friends, making the recipes that mean something to them is a deep way to connect.

We're apart. But we can still connect over food.
We're apart. But we can still connect over food.asiandelight - stock.adobe.com

I miss my friends. You?

It’s not like we saw one another that often. We were — are — always busy, separated by logistics and geography. Much of our communication took place then as it does now, in text bursts, the ongoing conversation that ebbs and flows, needing neither greeting nor farewell. Good friends pick up where they left off.

Now we have Zoom drinks, a new, nice thing. But I miss the possibility of finding time to take a walk together or share a meal in person. Remember the profligate hugs?

There are people I love with whom I never talk about food. But, in truth, food is at least a thread in most of my close relationships. Where are you eating? What are you cooking? It has been a major preoccupation and topic of conversation these past weeks, as we’ve cycled through some clear stages:


1. Freaking out/stocking up.

2. Realizing we now have to use all these ingredients.

3. Getting excited about the possibilities.

4. Making a few new projects well: ka-ching!

5. Realizing we’re a little bit over the whole thing and also exhausted.

6. Returning to the kind of familiar, comforting cooking we’ve always done.

It’s a journey.

Right now I’m alternating between 5 and 6, with sporadic revisits to 1. A lot of people I’ve talked to seem to be in a similar cooking space. I recently had a conversation with my friend Rachel, who is an amazing cook. We were lamenting and celebrating our current existence when I remembered: Weren’t you going to teach me how to make your chicken adobo? We never did get together and do that, although we’ve talked about it for, possibly, years at this point. (There were just so many restaurants we wanted to try...)

Well, no time like the present. Making this dish together(ish) was something we still could do. She e-mailed me the recipe, and we talked about various substitutions I needed to make (reader: my chicken did not have skin), and as we talked I got the full story of the dish and what it means to her:


“This dish grounds me. It’s the first dish I cook in a kitchen every time I move. It’s the last dish I make before I leave. It’s what I make when I miss my Filipino family because it’s like eating a hug. It’s what I make for people I love. I can’t believe I haven’t made it for you yet. But this is the next best thing. May we make it together someday,” she wrote.

Her recipe for chicken adobo is inspired by the versions made by her family. She watched her grandmother and uncles prepare it in the village where her mother grew up, at the base of the mountains in the Visayan region of the Philippines, always cooking over a wood fire. Back in Massachusetts, her mother made it (not over a wood fire) throughout Rachel’s childhood. “I think some recipes and traditions are hardwired into your DNA. I guess that’s mine,” she said.

For my friend Yvonne, who grew up in Australia raised by a Lebanese mother, that dish is potato kibbeh. The version she makes comes from what she calls her “bible cookbook,” the succinctly named Lebanese Cookbook,” by Dawn, Elaine, and Selwa Anthony. Everyone in her family has a copy, and everything she cooks from it tastes exactly like her mother’s cooking. How lovely, to be able to make something that tastes to you just as it should, like the one you knew first.


Yvonne sent me photos of the relevant pages from “Lebanese Cookbook.” They are stained. There are notes in the margins. Who scaled the dish up to feed 50? I wanted to know. She had no memory of it until she looked back at the notes: “I did do that,” she said. “I threw a party after my marriage ended, in 2002 — it was a house-cooling party because I thought I was selling the house. I cooked and cooked and cooked. It was a giant feast.” She wore a backless top with orange sequins, she remembers. I can picture her, beautiful and sparkling, setting down the trays of potato kibbeh and drinking a glass of wine: all of the things she did not know would come to pass; the entire life she was letting go with this celebration, like a balloon to the wind.

I will never participate in the recipe exchanges or chain letters people keep sending me: I am sorry! But I will happily get to know you better by cooking your family dishes. Right now, separated from friends, making the recipes that mean something to them is a deep way to connect. It leads to conversations we might not have otherwise had. It lets us live a small sliver of their experience, as we make motions, follow processes, and taste flavors that are customary for them; our minds tread the same grooves. And at the end we have dinner. May we make it together someday.


My Friend Rachel’s Chicken Adobo.
My Friend Rachel’s Chicken Adobo. Courtesy photo

I offer this recipe much as Rachel wrote it, leaving her voice intact. I love that it calls for “as much garlic as you have,” which feels very on brand.

My Friend Rachel’s Chicken Adobo

Serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

As much garlic as you have (I like 8 cloves), peeled and smashed

8 chicken thighs. With skin. Skin is key!

1 cup soy sauce

1 cup cane vinegar, such as Datu Puti (or substitute cider vinegar or white vinegar)

1 cup dark brown sugar

1 cup water

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon white peppercorns (or substitute black peppercorns)

3 pieces star anise

1. Set the oven to 375 degrees. In a deep frying pan or Dutch oven that will fit all the ingredients, heat the oil over a medium-high flame. When it shimmers, add the onion and garlic and sauté until onions are softened and translucent.

2. Add the chicken, skin side up, along with the soy sauce, vinegar, brown sugar, water, bay leaves, peppercorns, and star anise. Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. (Don’t stir, so as to keep the skin intact.)

3. Remove chicken to a baking dish, setting it skin side up in a single layer. Spoon sauce into the baking dish around the chicken, so that the sauce reaches the chicken skin but doesn’t cover it. Reserve and strain any remaining sauce. This is lovely on rice.


4. Bake chicken for 20 minutes or until the skin is crisp, keeping a close watch to make sure it doesn’t burn. Serve over rice. Or ramen noodles. Or anything you like. Enjoy!

Adapted from Rachel Alabiso

My Friend Yvonne's Potato Kibbeh.
My Friend Yvonne's Potato Kibbeh.Courtesy photo

My Friend Yvonne’s Potato Kibbeh

Serves 8

1½ pounds potatoes

2 onions, grated

1½ tablespoons salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1½ cups bulgur, soaked in hot water for 20 minutes

1 cup flour

1 cup finely chopped parsley

¼ cup finely chopped mint

1-1½ cups olive oil

1. Set the oven to 450 degrees with racks positioned at the center and top. Bring a large pot of water to boil and add the potatoes. Cook about 20 minutes or until tender. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel and mash together with the onion, salt, pepper, and cinnamon.

2. Drain the bulgur and knead it into the potato mixture. Add the flour and knead it in too. Add the parsley and mint and knead until all the ingredients are incorporated.

3. Oil a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and transfer the potato mixture to the dish. With wet hands, pat down mixture until it fills the dish in an even layer. Cut deep diagonal lines across the mixture, first slanting left, then slanting right, to make a diamond pattern. Pour the oil evenly over the mixture, so that it sinks into all of the cuts and creates a thin film on top.

4. Bake on a center rack for 20 minutes, then transfer the kibbeh to the top rack for 10 minutes more, or until it is browned. Serve warm. It’s good as a main course with salad, hummus, and labneh, or as a side dish.

Adapted from “Lebanese Cookbook,” by Dawn, Elaine, and Selwa Anthony

This story is one of Devra First’s Cooking From Home newsletters, which are now released weekly. Subscribe at globe.com/cookingfromhome.

Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.