Each week we talk to a member of the Serious Eats community. This week we chatted with Sarah Ingram (smsingram who lives in Durham and can't stop thinking about the kimchi fried rice she made for breakfast recently.
Name: Sarah Ingram
Location: Durham, NC
Occupation: Ph. D. student in the humanities
What is one of your earliest food memories? Eating two enormous platefuls of plain spaghetti at age 3 or 4, much to my grandmother's shock.
What is the most memorable bite of food you've ever eaten, can you describe it? I splurged on a fancy hotel in Kyoto on my last night in Japan once. They served a kaseki ryori meal in your room (after your hot soak in a cedar tub). The one bite I remember was in a small bowl of wide flat handmade noodles, dressed with a clear, slightly vinegary sauce and sprinkled with finely minced nuts. I couldn't get over how perfectly the chef had spaced the nuts on every noodle. I am not exaggerating to tell you that the chef must have laid every strip of noodle out on a board and personally added the nuts to each noodle himself, possibly using a ruler to measure. The pasta itself met the tender-toothy midway point perfectly. That was pretty much the best bite of pasta I have ever eaten in my life.
Do you work in the food industry? I had a catering job at my college. At one Reunion weekend, I spilled red wine all over a rich alum's lap. Then at the next meal I spilled another bottle of wine on that same alum. That was the last time I worked in the food industry.
Do you cook? I do. When the pressure gets to me, I find that the only way to satisfy my super-specific food cravings - pumpkin dinner rolls, anyone? - is to cook them into being. So I do cook a lot of new food (I love to bake), but I also carefully catalog every dish that both my family and I enjoy so that when times are tough I can fall back on an oldie but goodie.
When people come to visit Durham where do you take them to eat? Durham happens to be an unexpected food mecca. I live in northeastern Durham, an area few people know even if they live five minutes away. I inevitably take visitors to the nearby taqueria y birreria, Los Comales. The New York Times mentioned it in an article called "36 hours in Durham." It was a validation of our tastes that my spouse and I found immensely gratifying. The people there are so nice and they make every dish with an impressive attention to detail.
Other standbys include Goodberry's Frozen Custard, International Delights for mint tea, french fries, and falafel, Happy China for its sweet-and-sour fish cabbage soup and seasonal vegetables, Twisted Noodles for its yellow curry and chili oil noodle soups, Guglhupf for huge foamy drinks, delicate salads, and avocado poblano sandwich, and the Nasher Museum Café for a civilized brunch.
What is your favorite region/city/country to eat at? I love eating at sunlight-spangled restaurants on the Mediterranean, but the deft cooks of Japan just can't be beat. Who knew that Japan was the place where I would find the tastiest soft-serve ice cream, doughnuts, cream puffs, and lighter-than-air cheesecake? Plus all those stunning foods that Japan invented: zaru soba, okonomiyaki, oden, wagashi, sushi and sashimi. At least in the Kansai region where I once lived, the entire culture cultivates a gourmet farm-to-table attitude. I especially miss their vegetables: taro root and kabocha in the winter, myoga and nasubi in the summer, and oh my goodness, the mushrooms! Amazing place. I could talk about Japanese food for a month.
If you left Durham, where would your last meal be? Definitely at Los Comales because it is the only decent restaurant between my house and the highway on-ramp.
What is your favorite aroma in the kitchen? Baking challah. Not only is it delicious, it makes me temporarily feel like an up-to-snuff Jew, a rare and much-prized sensation.
Will you tell us about what you love to cook most? Is there a special dish that you would consider your signature? I actually have a few signature dishes, but the dish I'm most proud of is probably my zaru soba. Soba in any iteration was far and away my favorite food in Japan--I once stumbled upon a restaurant that ground its own buckwheat and every single item from chips to mousse to soup was made from buckwheat: LOVED it! So I researched the daylights out of zaru soba recipes once I realized I couldn't find any decent soba in Durham. Luckily it's easy to find fresh daikon radish here for grating into the dipping sauce.
What is the most disastrous dish you've ever attempted to cook? Oh dear. There are several contenders, probably quiche. I used soy milk instead of cream and, instead of rising, the eggy filling just leaked out a crack in my homemade crust and got all over my oven. The crust was awful too; stiff, tasteless and uneven. I tried to make it whole wheat. Stupid.
Is there something that you've eaten recently that you can't stop thinking about? I made a super lazy version of Nick Kindelsperger's kimchi fried rice for breakfast last week and I've been craving it every day since. My friend's coming over tonight to get some.
What is your guiltiest pleasure? Vegetarian meats. They are so awful, but so satisfying. I sometimes eat them straight from the package, even the "bacon" or "hot dogs."
What is your least favorite kitchen task? It's hard to say. I used dread many kitchen tasks, but I just stopped making recipes that required me to do them or figured out a less annoying method for dealing with them. I guess it's cleaning out the muffin tin. I know a lot of people share my pain on this one.
What would your last bite be? Nevada lettuce from my garden, picked less than an hour prior to eating.
If you could eat or cook a meal with anyone who would it be and why? I adore Myra Kornfeld's Voluptuous Vegan cookbook. She writes in such an inspiring way and every recipe is luscious. She actually teaches cooking class in NYC. It's my dream to take a class with her. I love her artistic sensibility. Her food looks beautiful and tastes unbelievably elegant. She creates meals like they're fairy tales with happy endings. She invented the chocolate cake with hazelnut mousse that I eat for my birthday every year. It's thickened with arrowroot powder, among other things, and it's light as air but intense and, well, voluptuous. I also regularly make her vegan miso soup, especially when I need comfort. Kornfeld is a genius--you guys should hire her!