In the kitchen with Jo

Better than takeout sesame noodles, soy sauce chicken and tofu salad recipes are easy summer fare

Grilled Soy Sauce Chicken using Joanna's homemade teriyaki marinade.

It started with a text.

Jo: “Hi there! Are you free this weekend at all?”
Me: “Free-ish on Saturday and free Sunday."
Jo: "Should we make sesame noodles with soy sauce chicken on Sunday?"
Me: "That would be great. OK to shoot it and share it on the blog?”
Jo: “Sure! I'll show an easy way to make the chicken that doesn't use the oven – so good summer food. We can add a tofu salad if you want, too.”

Come Sunday morning, I packed up my lighting and camera gear, a few backgrounds, some foam core boards and new dishes I recently picked up on clearance at a local Asian market and headed out for the 30 minute drive to Joanna's new home in North San Diego County. 

We started our day together the way we do almost every visit: with a trip to a Mexican restaurant. Jo loves Mexican food as much as I do and inevitably we wind up chowing down on guacamole, enchiladas and chiles rellenos. Bellies satiated, we headed out to the market to pick up our groceries for the afternoon’s marathon meal making. 

how we met
In September of 2002 I was leading a workshop on using Photoshop for conceptual fine art and editorial illustration at the Women in Photojournalism conference sponsored by the National Press Photographers Association. San Diego was the host city for the conference and John, one of her oldest friends from childhood, who, at the time, was a staff photographer at the newspaper I work at, was one of the few males working the conference. At the end of the first day, all the conference presenters and the behind-the-scenes staff were treated to dinner. John took Jo as his dinner companion and we just happened to wind up sitting next to each other. After spending most of the evening chatting, she decided to attend my workshop the following day. From that moment on, we have been amazing friends. With a shared passion for creating, designing, cooking and learning new things, the friendship has weathered many life events including a short stint as roommates, relationships, deaths, and even cross-country distances when she moved back to her hometown of New York.

getting to know her
From day one, I have been in constant awe of Jo’s many talents and the longer I know her, the more I learn of her rich past. Here’s just a small sampling: 

  • She's a singer and musician and spent much of her youth in several New York rock bands
  • She started her own music fanzine reporting on the local rock and punk scenes as well as interviewing international bands like Bauhaus and Dead Kennedy's
  • Along with her best friend, designed a line of rock fashion
  • Worked as marketing and public relations rep for a prestigious graphic design studio in New York which was, among other projects, responsible for designing the MTV logo
  • Worked as a model and actor, appearing in MTV ads and music videos
  • Worked as a fashion writer and editor for the East Village Eye
  • Is an award-winning fine jewelry designer who counts Julia Roberts, Andie MacDowell, Annabella Sciora, Rita Wilson, Kelly Preston, Debra Wilson and Poppy Montgomery among some of her clientele 
  • Owned her own jewelry gallery in San Francisco
  • Has provided on-air commentary on gems and jewelry for ShopNBC domestically and on HSE (Home Shopping Europe) in Germany, Austria and Switzerland
  • Helped a New York fashion house launch a line of bridal jewelry
  • And in the cooking department, has catered large multi-course dinner parties cooking her signature Chinese dishes

As I like to do when sharing the kitchen with a friend for this space, I asked Jo a few questions about her culinary journey. I love that even though I've known her for 15 years, I still couldn't have guessed these answers. I’m so excited to introduce you to her. Now that she's living in San Diego again, she and her recipes will be making many more appearances and I know you’re going to love her recipes as much as I do!

With a restrained hand on the sesame oil, these noodles don't suffer from the typical takeout problem of being a one-note dish. They're even better the next day, too. 

What is your earliest culinary memory?
I first remember my grandmother cooking fried chicken. We loved fried chicken! And helping my mother in the kitchen. My mother is a good cook but never loved cooking so I took over the kitchen at a pretty young age. Probably before I was even in my teens.

When did you first realize that you enjoyed cooking and what is it about it that appeals to you?
My first real love was baking. I remember when I was quite young, maybe 9 or 10 years old, I made individual breads, braided into little baskets that each held an Easter Egg for the people at church. I think I also made cream puffs that looked like swans that year! Haha! I wanted to be a baker and my Dad had a client who had an Italian cafĂ© and bakery. Their pastry chef, Nino, was amazing! He said he would take me on as an apprentice. I was 10 years old and it was tough enough to go to school at 7:00 a.m. so when I heard I’d have to start at 3:30 a.m. at the bakery I realized that (becoming a baker’s apprentice) was not in the cards…

Cooking came very naturally to me and at an early age I took over the bulk of the family cooking. I enjoy feeding people and I am pretty good at knowing what ingredients will work together. I have a sense of flavors even if I have no recipe per se, I know what it will taste like.  I like the creativity you can meld into your cooking. The art of making a wonderfully, thoughtfully, lovingly prepared meal is very special.

Do you have a favorite dish or specialty that you love to make?
I love cooking holiday food. There’s a certain ritualistic aspect to the food and the memories of family and friends are so intertwined with the meals, it enriches every aspect of it. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chinese New Year, Easter, birthdays–all special and I do make special dishes for each holiday that have become a personal tradition.

I’m open to all cuisines and learn a lot when I try new dishes and new ingredients. When my Mom and I were in New Zealand visiting my sister Andrea and her children, I would cook while she was at work and the kids were in school. Food is really expensive in New Zealand so you get creative really fast!

When I was in Honduras, we were staying at a dive resort that had terrible food. I was there for my dear friend Lili’s birthday so I asked if they would let me take over their kitchen to make her a special birthday meal for her and our group. I was very limited on ingredients but you use what’s available, what’s fresh, local and what’s in season. We’d just caught fresh tuna that morning so we had a really nice meal and there was even enough in their pantry and larder for me to bake her a pineapple cheesecake for her birthday cake.

Is there a dish or particular cuisine that you haven't tried yet but would love to give a shot at making?

Too many! I’d love to learn by location. Even the regional cuisine of our country is quite vast. I love Moroccan food but have never prepared it. Spending as much time in Asia as I have I would love to learn how to prepare those cuisines. Hand pulled noodles are right at the top of my list because its magical how they are formed. My love of Italian food is deeply embedded in my childhood so having a better understanding of regional Italian food would be great. And I still love baking and decorating. I took lessons in sugarcraft and cake decorating and loved it. I’d like to be able to wield a pastry bag like a pro someday! 

Jo's Tofu Salad is a perfect cold dish for a hot summer day.

final thoughts
When thinking of Jo, I can’t help but think of the passage in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice:

“… no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be half deserved.”

Jo is accomplished, fully deserving of the word. Thank you, Jo, for sharing a part of yourself with us today.

Until next time, friends … xo, ani 

Jo's Grilled Soy Sauce Chicken with Homemade Teriyaki Sauce
This is one versatile marinade. I've been to Jo's for dinner when she's used this marinade on tri-tip. Delicious! And that's the true beauty of this recipe: you can use it for chicken, beef or a strong fish, like salmon, and with each protein, the marinade will have a slightly different taste. So if you have friends over for a mix grill, all three proteins can take an overnight bath in this marinade and each would retain their own unique flavor–pumped up, that is. If you don't feel like grilling, you can simply preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, place the chicken single layer on a rimmed baking sheet or shallow pan and bake it for 15 minutes. Lower the heat to 375 and bake for an additional 20 minutes or until the meat has pulled away from the bone and internal temperature registers 165 degrees in the thickest part of a leg or thigh. The meat will taste best if you allow it to marinade overnight or at the very least, 4 hours. 

Makes 6 servings

2½-3 pounds bone-in, skin on chicken thighs
2½-3 pounds bone-in, skin on chicken legs

For the marinade: 
¾ cup soy sauce
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon sesame oil
¼ teaspoon freshly grated ginger (see note)

Divide chicken into two 1-gallon sized resealable plastic bags. In a small bowl, whisk together the marinade ingredients. Evenly divide the marinade between the two bags of chicken then squeeze out excess air while sealing bags. Massage marinade into chicken and let marinate overnight in the refrigerator.

When ready to cook, remove chicken from refrigerator and allow 30 minutes to come up to room temperature. Prepare a grill as per grill's instructions. Once temperature reaches 500 degrees, place chicken on grates, close grill and grill for 10 minutes. Open grill, flip chicken, close grill and grill an additional 8-10 minutes. Continue grilling and turning chicken, moving chicken pieces onto cooler areas of the grill as needed until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. Remove to a platter and allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Note: Jo keeps her ginger in the freezer. Frozen ginger grates on a microplane so much easier with the added benefit of not losing any precious ginger juice. I've started doing this and truly am amazed at how much more intense the ginger is.

Jo's Cold Sesame Noodles {vegan}
A classic takeout dish, Jo thinks the problem with restaurant sesame noodles tends to be too much sesame oil. "A little goes a long way," says Jo. "The flavor can quickly become overwhelming, throwing off the balance." A surprise ingredient to me was the addition of peanut oil. "It adds to the silky mouth feel of the dish, especially since we're limiting the amount of sesame oil." Jo has also swapped out traditional fresh Chinese noodles for more readily available spaghetti.

Makes 6 servings

1 pound dry spaghetti
1 tablespoon peanut oil, plus a splash, divided
1½ cups chunky peanut butter
3½ tablespoons soy sauce
6 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons sambal (Chinese chili paste), or substitute with Sriracha or gochujang 
½ teaspoon sesame oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
3 scallions, thinly sliced (green and white parts), divided

For garnish: 
chopped peanuts
cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add pasta and cook 8-10 minutes or until just tender. Drain pasta and rinse under cold running water. Keeping the pasta in the colander, drizzle a splash of canola oil over the pasta and toss to coat. This will help keep the pasta strands from sticking to each other. Set aside to finish cooling.

In a large bowl, stir the tablespoon of peanut oil, peanut butter, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, sambal, sesame oil and garlic together until well combined. Add a tablespoon of water if needed to help smooth sauce out. Add the noodles and toss well to coat, adding more water a tablespoon at a time, if needed. Toss in ⅔ of the sliced scallions, stirring to distribute.

Divide noodles between 6 plates. Garnish with remaining scallions, chopped peanuts, cilantro and sriracha, to taste.

Jo's Tofu Salad {vegan}
This salad is so easy. I asked Jo if this was a dish she'd grown up on. She said no, that in fact it came about because she was hosting a New Year's eve dinner and needed to flesh out her vegetarian selections. I'm specifically calling out Trader Joe's Organic Sprouted Tofu for this recipe. No, this isn't sponsored. I have nothing to do with Trader Joe's. But after personally trying and using many different kinds of tofu, I have found that this extra firm tofu has the best texture, holding it's shape well when sliced. 

Makes 6 servings

2 teaspoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar
½ teaspoon sambal, or to taste
3 drops sesame oil
1 tablespoon sugar
1 medium to large red bell pepper, diced into roughly 1/4-inch pieces
3 scallions, thinly sliced, divided
1 15.5-ounce package of Trader Joe's Organic Sprouted Tofu, cubed into bite-sized pieces 
handful of cilantro leaves, chopped, for granish

Whisk together soy sauce, vinegar, sambal, sesame oil, sugar, bell pepper and half the scallions. Place the cubed tofu in a bowl and top with the dressing. Cover and chill for at least 4 hours. When ready to serve, divide between 6 dishes and garnish with reserved scallions and the cilantro.

Joanna and I June 2017. Photo ©Joanna Joy Seetoo.


  1. Jo seems like quite the sweet and talented lady! What great recipes which I hope to try very soon! Also, never knew about the frozen ginger tip (this is gonna save my ginger lol). =)


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