Vanessa Chang
(A Glutton with Brains)


a glutton with brains

Summer Grill & Olive Oil Cake for the Soul


I've spent a good deal of my life feeding people. One of my few strengths is to go into the kitchen and, regardless of how constrained I was by finances, cook something delicious to feed my beloved friends.

But in the last little while something funny happened: I lost my appetite.

My mind usually crowded with ideas of what I'll cook next suddenly didn't have room for feasts, large and small. As winter set in, it was crowded with something that ate at me from the inside. It was sudden. And it was voracious.

Let's just say, I've always had that constant, dull gnaw of anxiety with me. Even as a kid, my stomach would churn when Dad's voice hit an angry octave or when I thought about how to "plan my future." But this anxiety was different. It lay so thick on my tongue that nothing tasted good.

What a nuisance, I thought. I've so much to eat. So much to cook. And there I was in bed, my heavy limbs refusing to budge. Fear of my purpose in life, failures achieved and predicted, had overtaken my hunger.

I see no point in being vague about where I've been. I wish I could say it was some grand adventure around the world or in the fourth dimension. But really, my depressed, anxiety ridden ass was discovering new prescription meds. Doctor prescribed, of course.

Many things have happened since I last wrote about the healing properties of my mother's Chicken Ginseng Soup. I've healed since this bleak winter. I'm healing still. The sunshine — even the oppressive heat — helps. So does seeing green things grow. The little seeds and I appreciate the warmth. They get theirs all from the sun. I get mine from the love of a fellow who also happens to be one of the best things to happen to me, even in this time of darkness and no appetite. He helped keep the flame alive.

So did my friends. I could go into every cliche about the power of friendship. But I think we all know it firsthand that I'll spare my fingertips and you the flowery prose. They just rock.

Take Sofia and Amber, the lovely ladies in the photo above. They are as wonderful and warm as their smiles. Their food is always good. And an evening with them as the summer sun starts to set and the grill is at full blast is one of the truest things I know. These are the things that heal.

Healing comes when you're invited over to a friend's house for dinner. Better still when that meal is taken outside in much good company. Sofia and her husband, Kenvin, had invited Amber, her husband Rob and her son Nick, as well as myself over for dinner. In the dining room, a photo of him in blue jeans, cowboy boots and hat hangs up. It was taken the day he bought the place 41 years ago.

Kenvin's life story is the stuff of rock 'n roll envy and maybe even screenplay. He hails from good old-fashioned farmers' stock in Utah county. It's from that piece of land they grew the exceptional produce they sold at the Farmers' Market and to chefs around the area. It's been a while since they've worked the farm. But he's been working on a cookbook, which he's also beautifully illustrated.


Even Amber's surly 15-year old son Nick took interest in Kenvin's work.

Sofia and Kenvin are some of the coolest people I know. I first met them many moons ago when they sold their incredible heirloom tomatoes at the Farmers' Market in downtown Salt Lake City.

They met 14 years ago when they both were on a trip -- separately -- to Hawaii. He predicted he'd meet his mate there and described Sofia to a T, before he even encountered her. And there she was as he had described to one of his friends. They've been together ever since. Gives one hope for a.) finding love and b.) having that love last.


Healing is being in their company and in my good friends'. Healing is seeing people like Sofia and Kenvin live richly and simply with such grace.

The stove Kenvin bought for $8. The oven is small and riddled with hot spots, Sofia says. But it's still a marvel to our eyes. No dishwasher here. And their fridge is also a base for their prep/area and cutting board.

I imagine cooking many meals here. I imagine Sofia and Kenvin cooking the marvelous things from their backyard.


Healing is also walking through their suburban paradise filled with corn, wily, frilly stalks of mature chard, tomatoes, grape vines and herbs. Aromatherapy, light therapy, group therapy capped off with a sip of Coppola Sofia Blanc de Blancs.

Sofia is the self-professed grill master. The grill you see here she spotted at a chic furniture consignment store in town. On the floor it was used to hold pillows. She had hotter things in mind

and added a grill surface. The smell was mind-boggling. I could've been a bee sedated with the smoky air.


Fresh ears of corn. Whole boiled potatoes. Kenvin's Guinness-marinated pork ribs. They all went onto the hot surface.

Rob being the Mushroom Man brought fresh porcini, fat and thick from Oregon. He slathered them with extra-virgin olive oil and tended them over the fire.

We nibbled on prosciutto-wrapped melon and goat cheese crackers topped with chives from the garden. More bubbly.

We all felt luxurious in this simplicity.

Then, it was time to eat.


The only thing eating away my insides was hunger. The plate was fuller of this wholesome food than my mind was of worrying thoughts. I was ready to eat. A lot. A far cry from the cold season where I could barely take in a bowl of plain, hot rice.

Now, I want it all. The ribs, the potatoes, the greens with mayo (Kenvin's recipe), grilled porcini, La Granja Spanish wine. I am hungry again. Greedy almost. I'm making up for lost time remembering that I cook and I damn well enjoy it and prefer it to this bloody anxiety.

Yes, there is chicken soup for the soul. But the idea of chicken soup in a bowl means sweater food to me. And I'm working my way out of the cold season. For now, I'm just fine with a summer grill out for the soul.

So, to everyone who has fed me, generously and lovingly, thank you for this edible sort of healing.

* * * * * * * * *

RECIPE: Amber’s Olive Oil Cake

Serves 12


The lovely Amber (who has a cake company, Farina) has created several variations of this cake. This exceptionally moist creation has made people do exceptional things like become speechless or wax poetic about baked goods in general. It exemplifies her penchant for elegant simplicity and for flavors. I share this recipe because it comes from a generous soul who has helped me to heal and who on many an occasion fed me exceptionally well.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

3 large eggs

2 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups extra-virign olive oil

1 1/2 cups whole milk

zest of 1 lemon

zest of 1 orange

Butter and flour a 10-inch cake pan. Line the bottom with a parchment circle (Note: It doesn’t have to be perfect. Don’t add stress here. It’s not necessary). Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs and sugar until the mixture become pale yellow and thick. While whisking, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Then add the milk. Fold in dry ingredients and finally the zest.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until a pick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean, about 50-55 minutes.

Let cool. Serve with whipped cream and fresh seasonal berries or berry coulis or powdered sugar or nothing at all. A cup of coffee is divine with it.