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This past Friday was Maha Shivaratri, a holiday especially meaningful to my family since our boy is named for Lord Shiva. My mom and I spent the day fasting, a practice that has grown more and more potent for me as I’ve gotten older. I have a greater respect for discipline than I used to, a greater understanding of what it can accomplish. Discipline, now, is as much about affirmation as it is about denial.

I broke my fast in the evening, after we had performed puja as a family. With my right hand working to portion bites of my mom’s famous aloo parantha, I told Shiv my favorite of the stories associated with Maha Shivaratri. The basic scenario is this: the gods were weak as the result of a curse, and in order to be strengthened, sought out amrita, or nectar of life, which could only found at the bottom of the ocean. Given their weakness, the gods had no choice but to partner with the demons in order to harness adequate power for churning the ocean, the only way to access the nectar.

This part gets complicated, but during the extended retrieval process, an extremely deadly poison emerges—a familiar mythological trope, right? Before you get to the awesome thing you’ve been working so hard for, something super-dangerous comes along. In this case, the poison was so intensely harmful that it threatened to wipe out the already-weakened gods, to say nothing of potentially destroying all of humanity.

Enter Shiva. He agrees to drink the poison, but holds it in his throat, offering it a container and keeping it from harming others. Ultimately—and some versions of the story attribute this to the efforts of his wife, Parvati, or the other gods—the poison also does not harm Shiva, though it does turn his neck (or, in some stories, his whole body) blue.

You can do a lot with this story. I am particularly drawn to the notion that poisonous things cannot necessarily be dispensed with altogether, but that sometimes we have to make room for them. I am inspired by the thought that we can render harmful things harmless by offering them a place inside our own vast capability. In debriefing the story with Shiv, we talked about sacrifice, that it is sometimes necessary to do difficult things for the benefit of others, that Shiva’s actions can inspire all of us to be strong when the time comes to do the right thing.

Earlier in the day, at the Jewish school where I work, our Head of School gave a beautiful d’var torah about that oft-quoted verse from Exodus: “You shall neither wrong a stranger, nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” It’s not unusual for the week’s parsha (text selection) to feel relevant—indeed that is the point of revisiting the text year after year, to connect it to our lives—but wow. This one. Timely.

Tomorrow, Lent begins, another layer of the multi-faceted traditions that make up my personal spiritual life. It’s a season all about sacrifice and discipline, and I welcome its structure each year, but perhaps no more so than I will now, when so much feels uncertain.

On Friday night, as I got him ready for bed, Shiv took his allergy medicine, as usual, then made a funny face, holding his lips together and puffing out his cheeks. “I was tryna hold it in my throat and be strong,” he told me after he’d swallowed it. “Like Lord Shiva.”

 

SISTER BARBARA’S TUNA JAMBALAYA

Some folks seek out more fish recipes for Lent, so I thought it would be a good time to share this recipe for one of our family’s “old reliables.” Not necessarily the most attractive or showy dish, but it sure is comforting and simple to make. I learned the recipe a long time ago from one of those old-fashioned, Southern, comb-bound cookbooks to which Sister Barbara, whoever she may be, contributed.

I lost the official recipe a while back, but I still know how to make this dish from muscle memory; this is very much a “pantry” dinner, or a “what should I make for dinner?” dinner, provided you’ve grabbed a green bell pepper from the store and always keep celery in your crisper like I do.

ingredients:

None of these measurements are precise/exact; feel free to tinker based on what you have.

Butter and/or vegetable oil 1 yellow onion, diced 1 large green bell pepper, diced 3-4 ribs celery, diced 1-2 cans chunk light tuna in water, drained 1 cup short-grain rice 2 ¼ cups stock (I tend to have chicken on hand; the original recipe called for beef stock) Salt & pepper Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning or a similar seasoning blend

Melt a knob of butter (or heat up 1-2 T oil) in a large saute pan over medium heat. Cook the trinity (onion + bell pepper + celery) until soft, about 5 minutes. Season with a bit of salt and pepper, then add a bit more butter before stirring in the rice, cooking it for 1-2 minutes. Pour in the stock, then stir in the tuna. Season again—a few generous shakes of creole seasoning, and perhaps a bit more salt.

Cover the pan with a lid to let the mixture come to a boil; check after a few minutes and turn the heat down as needed, replacing the lid. Cook until the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is fully cooked.* Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Serve & enjoy!

*If your rice is fully cooked but you have more liquid than you want, remove the lid for the remainder of the cooking process. If you’re out of liquid but your rice is still undercooked, add a bit more stock and re-cover the pan.

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BRAVER THAN WE THINK

January 19, 2017

Grief does not work the same for everyone, but to anyone who’s experienced it, it’s universally recognizable.  I know grief when I see it, and I see it in this moment.  In the woman who caught my eye in the dressing room at the gym as we both looked away from TV coverage of you-know-what; in the texts between friends to share the acts of resistance and solidarity we have planned for the next 48 hours; in the deep exhalation of my mother’s breath as she hugged me goodnight.

This is my frame of reference, of course; there are lots of people who aren’t grieving, who are celebrating instead, because that’s how ideologies run: two ways.  There are those who are “waiting and seeing,” those whose personal issues are so real and primary and in-your-face urgent that they can’t see or be concerned with anything else.  I get that.

It’s complicated, and nuance matters more than ever; I know that there are legitimate concerns about the leadership and language and inclusivity of Saturday’s protest efforts; I know that there are many groups of people for whom this grief is old hat, who view these sudden and dramatic showings of outrage as privileged and lacking in self-awareness.  I know that demonizing and painting with a broad brush, no matter which side is doing it, is dangerous.

But I’ve been listening to the voices who seem the wisest, both past and present; those who have stood inside of resistance for their entire lives, who have things to teach me and all of us who are interested in learning, who can offer some direction when many of us feel unmoored.  Here’s one thing they all seem to agree on: calling things by their proper names.

I may lose some of you with this example, but hear me out.  In the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort—the power-hungry villain—is commonly referred to as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”  In the first book of the series, Dumbledore, Harry’s mentor, instructs him otherwise:

“Call him Voldemort, Harry.  Always use the proper name for things.  Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

That’s one thing we can do.  Stop equivocating things that aren’t equivalent.  Stop using euphemisms because we’re scared of the truth.  Stop wishing our way into cheap optimism.

We are so obsessed with positivity in this culture, to the point that we have and continue to erase narratives of whole swaths of people and refuse to make room for facts that don’t fit inside of our relentlessly cheery outlook.  That is part of how we got here, and we have to stop.  According to Vincent Harding, and I’m pretty sure he knew, “What is needed is more and more people to stand in the darkness.”

The other thing that I think I’ve learned—and this will seem contradictory, but I find that paradox is usually where the truth of human experience is located—hope is essential.  An insistence on joy: not as a blind looking-away, but as a choice.  Call the dystopian clown show what it is, then refuse to let it grind you down.  Resist the bullshit narratives that want to cocoon you in fear, then go make some art.  Let yourself be outraged by that which should generate outrage, even if it happens over and over and over again.  Write down what you value, what you believe in—do it right now—so that you will not be normalized into someone your grief wouldn’t recognize.  Create community around those values, if you haven’t already, or find one to join.  Remember that you are capable of great kindness, and that, while it may not seem like it, care for the self and care for the other is a radical act.

Grief is often monstrous, consuming.  But it can also be a teacher.  If we’re willing, it can show us that we are all braver than we think.

“Resistance is the secret of joy.”

“[M]ake yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit.”

“You defeat the devil when you hold onto hope.”

[Alice Walker / Rebecca Solnit / Run the Jewels]

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WOO THEM WITH CHOCOLATE

December 26, 2016

Blog posts have been few and far between this year—this is my fifteenth post in 2016—and the era of consistent, twice-a-week posts (whaaa???) feels like it’s a lifetime away.

I love this space, even as I wonder why I keep it; the internet and my life have both changed a lot since 2009.  Still, not a day goes by that I don’t interact with someone who I met because of Blue Jean Gourmet, and, from time to time, I hear from friends and acquaintances that they’re using one of the recipes archived here.  That brings me so much joy.

Being a food writer may not be my ultimate calling, but I couldn’t have known that without giving it a whirl first.  While I may eventually transition Blue Jean Gourmet into something else, this space has helped me determine which stories do feel like mine to tell, and that is a tremendous gift.

I know we’re mostly busy talking about what a dumpster fire of a year 2016 has been, but personally, I can’t write it off.  This was the year that I signed a publishing contract, something I’ve wanted for as long as I can remember, and I am proud as heck for making that happen.  Working on a book while teaching full time and parenting/life-ing is no joke, but it’s the best kind of problem to have, one of my own making and one that pushes me to live ever-more in line with what I say I want, and who I say I want to be.

This has been a year filled with a lot of examination around those categories—what I say I want, who I say I want to be—and some hard, important adjustments made in the wake of that examining.  I’ve been a lot more honest with myself, which feels less painful and more powerful each time I do it; my bff Coco got me this awesome pin (side note: Emily McDowell’s stuff is so good) and it is an aspirational reach that I will take with me into 2017.

Ideally, I would have passed these recipes along before Christmas and Hanukkah came along, but they’re also both well suited for any New Year’s celebrations that you may be scheming, or you can just keep them in your arsenal for any time you may need to woo, placate, or dazzle someone with chocolate.

SALTED TAHINI CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES

source: Danielle Orton, as shared by Food 52

You’ve probably heard about these cookies already, and maybe you thought, “Do I really need another chocolate chip cookie recipe in my life?”  The answer is yes.  But don’t make these unless/until you own good-quality tahini (ordering Soom online is worth every penny) and good quality dark chocolate (I used Guittard 66% semisweet baking wafers).  Trust me, it’s worth the splurge;people will rave about these!

ingredients:

8 T unsalted butter, soft

½ cup well-stirred tahini

1 cup sugar

1 egg + 1 egg yolk

1 tsp. vanilla

1 cup + 2 T all-purpose flour

½ tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

1 ¾ cups good-quality chocolate chips or chunks (since I had discs, I gave them a rough chop before using)

flaky finishing salt

Cream butter, tahini, & sugar together on medium speed for about 5 minutes—the mixture should look light and fluffy when you’re done.  Add the egg, yolk, and vanilla and mix for another 5 minutes.

Sift the dry ingredients into a separate bowl, then add to the wet ingredients on low speed.  Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold the chocolate in by hand, using a spatula.

From here, the original recipe instructs you to line a baking sheet with parchment, divide the dough into twelve scoops, and place the dough balls on the cookie sheet and freeze for 12 hours before baking.  Either I wasn’t paying attention or I was feeling lazy, but I stashed the dough in the fridge, still in the mixing bowl, wrapped in plastic, overnight, then baked, and my cookies still turned out delicious.  You do whatever feels right to you.

Whenever you’re ready to bake, you’re looking at 325F and about 12-15 minutes in the oven, until just the edges are getting brown.  Don’t worry if the middle of the cookies looks a bit pale-that’s how they’re supposed to look.  As they come out of the oven, sprinkle with salt.  Cool on a rack, then move to a platter and watch them disappear!

PEAR AND BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE CAKE

an oldie-but-a-goodie from Smitten Kitchen

This is a “back pocket” recipe for me, one that’s simple enough to make but feels fancy, especially when served with some homemade whipped cream.  It’s the technique here that really make a difference, so don’t ignore the instructions about making sure the eggs are at room temperature before you whip them for, yes, nine whole minutes.  If you’ve never whipped eggs for that long before, you’ll be amazed at what happens when you do.

ingredients:

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 T baking powder

¼ tsp. salt

3 eggs, at room temperature*

8 T unsalted butter

¾ cup sugar

3 pears, peeled, cored, diced small (I like using bosc)

¾ cup bittersweet chocolate chunks or chips

Oven: 325F

Pan: 9-inch spring form pan, buttered & floured (I’ve also used a 9-inch square pan in a pinch)

Whisk dry ingredients together and set aside.

Using the whisk attachment on a stand mixer, whip the eggs for NINE WHOLE MINUTES until they’re pale and very thick.  While that’s happening, brown the butter; melt it in a saucepan over medium-low flame, stirring occasionally, until it begins to smell nutty and the color turns brown.  Set aside.

Add the sugar to the eggs and beat for a few more minutes.  Turn the mixer down to low and add the dry ingredients and brown butter to the batter, alternating like this:

1/3 dry mix

½ brown butter

1/3 dry mix

½ brown butter

1/3 dry mix

Mix until just combined—don’t overmix, or the eggs will lose volume!  Scrape the mixture out into the pan, then scatter the pear and chocolate pieces on top.

Bake until the cake is golden brown and a toothpick comes away clean when inserted into the center of the cake; in my oven, that took a good hour, but you may want to start checking at 45-50 minutes, to be safe.

Serve with some barely sweetened whipped cream.  If you’re feeling fancy, a drop of almond extract or a couple of drops of Amaretto in the whipped cream would also be nice.

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DIWALI 2016

November 17, 2016

Ten years ago, I hosted my first Diwali party.  Less than six months after my father’s death, I threw myself into preparations, calling my mom for consultations on the proper way to cook the dishes I’d watched her make, but never made myself, my whole life.  I lived in Tucson, Arizona at the time, in my second year of graduate school, and I’ll never forget what it meant to me that my classmates, who I knew in certain ways through their writing but who were strangers to me in other ways, turned up to enthusiastically not just to celebrate a holiday but to bear witness to me as I fumbled my way through grief and an attendant longing to still be engaged in and hopeful about the world.

I couldn’t have guessed, a decade ago, how my annual Diwali party would come to structure and witness so much shared history within the community Jill and I have built for ourselves.  Over the years, the celebration has gained significance because of so many attendant life events: marriages, losses, babies, cancer.  Each year, we gather together and take stock of what has transpired, making time for gratitude and reaffirming our faith in the power of goodness.

The Carroll/Mehra Diwali celebration has become a truly communal effort, a testament to the ways I have grown and changed, learning to actually ask for—and receive!—help.  My friend Maconda makes the most beautiful flower arrangements (even this year, when she couldn’t actually attend the party due to the flu), Megan plays wine fairy, Burke brought candles and napkins, Bonnie toys for the kids, and Greg & Sharon once again served as my last-minute, willing-to-do-whatever-is-needed helpers.  I throw the party because it’s tradition, because it is an important part of my identity and culture, because it is a strike in the “hope” column that I so desperately still want to occupy, but it would be worth it to throw the party each year simply to be reminded of the wonderful people who fill my life.  In the days since the part, lyrics from a song that I haven’t listened to in years filled my mind: “And I act like I have faith / and like that faith never ends / but I really just have friends.”

Diwali, like all religious holidays, has a powerful story at its core.  The villain in the Diwali story is Ravana, who is spoken of in the tradition not as a cosmic demon but rather as a man who achieves demonic status via his greed, arrogance, ego, and lust for power.  In the myth, Ravana is eventually slain by the hero Rama, but the arc of Rama’s story includes fourteen years in exile.

In its etymology, exile comes from a root meaning “to wander” and is a derivative of a verb meaning “to take out to the root.”  There is something potent for me in that image, of pulling something out of the earth, the way that my mom taught me to weed, not the lazy way—simply tearing at the visible green parts—but to go down into the soil, to get dirt under my fingernails, to pull up under stubborn tendrils, to tug until they gave way.  It is exhausting and sometimes back-breaking work.  It is slow.  Sometimes you have to pull up the same weed over and over and over again.

Maybe we are in exile, in darkness; or perhaps we have always been here and the light is just now being shed on it.  Either way, we all have some digging to do.

MENU NOTES:

This year, I served vadouvan spiced cashews, pav bhaji & saag paneer (both made by my mom), Indian-spiced sweet potato latkes (improvised & maybe the hit of the night, served with strained & salted yogurt instead of sour cream), the ever-beloved and oft-requested grilled halloumi, tamarind-glazed lamb meatballs, and mini cardamom-and-rosewater-flavored cakes (adapted from this recipe) and these super-delicious coconut-brown-butter financiers, half of which I dipped in dark chocolate.

PREVIOUS DIWALI PARTIES ON THE BLOG:

2015, 2013*, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009

*We skipped a year because a bunch of our friends got married all at once!  (It was the best possible reason.)