SPICY PEPITAS

I’m not supposed to be writing this, really.  Dave is going to yell at me.

pepitas side view

Today I am at home from school on doctor’s orders, and I am supposed to be resting my hands, arms, & wrists as much as possible while waiting for the course of oral steroids I started this morning to kick in.  I have the best PCP/internist in the world, and her office staff deftly fit me in for an emergency appointment after things got so bad that it hurt to hold open a book.

Amazing the things you take for granted, right?  That I can go through my life grading vocabulary tests, typing reply emails to parents, scribbling notes in a journal, mincing garlic for dinner, and not feel anything but perhaps a little tired at the end of the day.  To be a generally healthy, able-bodied human being, I’ve realized over the last few days, is to be profoundly spoiled.

I would say more, but I really oughn’t.  I’m going to do my best today to stay away from my computer, phone, & cutting board (which are, of course, the trifecta of inanimate objects that receive the majority of my attention) and come up with creative, non-injuring-to-the-hands-arms-or-wrists ways to spend my time.

The hypothesis my doctor’s currently testing is that my tendon sheaths are extremely swollen and pressing on the nerves in both wrists, causing pain in both hands and along the forearms.  The plan: five-day course of steroids and some sexy wrist-splint-wearing at night.  Hopefully, Plan A will suffice and we won’t be moving onto Plan B: visit the neurologist.

In the meantime, I feel lucky to have the most generous folks taking care of me…Courtney, who offered to drive me to Costco and be my concierge this afternoon, so that I don’t have to pick up any large items or push them in a cart.  The aforementioned Dave (my best guy friend in the world), who invited me out for delicious pizza and wine dinner last night, then scolded me for texting later in the evening.  Usually it is I who confiscates his Blackberry at the table, but for now we may have to switch roles on that one.

Jill has been nothing but sympathetic and will have to carve our Halloween pumpkin; no doubt she’s up for the task.  We still have one of the little guys you see below leftover from last weekend, when I made my own pumpkin puree (now safely tucked into the freezer) and toasted up these spicy pepitas.

pumpkins with garland

If you plan to do some carving this weekend (ohandIthinkyoushould), be sure to save your pumpkin’s seeds and toast them up in the oven for a crunchy, addicting, perfect-with-a-cold-beer snack.

Happy Halloween, ya’ll!

SPICY PEPITAS

There are infinite variations on the theme here—once you’ve got the method down, feel free to play it up with spices.  I’ve done an Indian version (cumin, coriander, red chili), a Mediterranean one (oregano, smoked paprika, garlic), and just plain ole salt.

For the version below, I basically rummaged through my spice cabinet and had fun sprinkling little bits of this and that.  They got the “OMG did you put crack in these?” thumbs up I so enjoy hearing.

ingredients: pepitas from above

1 ½ cups raw pumpkin seeds, washed & dried well
2-3 T butter or vegetable oil*
2 T honey or brown sugar (the former yields a “wetter” finished product)
1 tsp. garlic powder
½ tsp. chipotle powder
¼ tsp. cayenne

sea salt

oven: 350°
pan: foil-lined baking sheet

Combine all ingredients but sea salt in a small bowl.  Toss to ensure that each seed is well-coated.

Spread the pumpkin seeds into an even layer on the baking sheet.  Toast for 12-15 minutes or until the seeds become fragrant but not overly brown.

Cool just a tad before eating, but they are so delicious warm!  Store in an airtight plastic container for up to a week.

*If you use butter, the pepitas will be more flavorful but will also become rancid more quickly, so be careful.

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CONSIDER THE CHICKEN

Oh humble chicken, you have been much-abused.  Penned-in, overfed, packaged on sterile Styrofoam and pumped full of watery broth, deboned, all-too-often rendered dry and tasteless.

It doesn’t have to be that way, of course.

roast chicken

Out of a whole set of reasons which are probably suited for a separate blog post, Jill and I made the decision over a year ago to stop buying conventionally raised & processed meats.  I could say a lot, lot more about how and why we did this and how glad I am that we did, but for now I’ll just stick with: I’ll be damned if the chicken sure doesn’t taste a heckuva lot better.  You know, like food you’d actually want to eat.

I also find it brings great satisfaction to use the bird in its entirety, from neck to wingtip. It’s what your grandma—well not my grandma, but someone’s grandma—would do.  I want to be that grandma in the kitchen: thorough, efficient, capable, fearless.

So let’s reclaim the chicken in all of its juicy, satisfying glory!  It’s amazing how well you can feed yourself and, if applicable, your family, with one respectfully-treated bird.

Today’s somewhat complicated post proceeds as follows:

Roast a chicken
Make chicken salad out of leftover breast meat
Make chicken stock using the carcass
Make chicken soup with the stock & any remaining chicken meat

{Repeat}

You don’t have to go through all of these steps, of course; you can easily make the chicken salad or soup with a store-bought rotisserie chicken.  But I hope at some point you will take a second look at the humble chicken, perhaps splurge on a free-range version, and spend some time in your kitchen with her, for she is so much more than the zebra-striped grilled breasts she’s so cruelly reduced to.

ROAST CHICKEN

Okay.  There are lots of fancy recommendations out there about tucking slivers of garlic under the skin or mixing up ten-ingredient spice rubs with which to coat the entire bird, and you can do all of that, I am not going to stop you.

But promise me you’ll try, at least once, the almost sinful simplicity and ease of  roasting a chicken practically naked.  Planning to eat it for dinner?  Roast some potatoes and parsnips (drizzled in olive oil, seasoned with salt & pepper) underneath.  Planning to reserve the meat for later?  Roast carrots, onions, a few cloves of garlic, & celery underneath to transfer directly into a stock pan.

Take the chicken out of the refrigerator about an hour before you plan to cook it.  Preheat your oven to 450°.

Using paper towels, dry the chicken extremely well, inside and out.  Cover the skin liberally with salt (kosher, if possible) & pepper.  You may stuff the breast with herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme, etc. and/or half of a lemon.

I like to roast my chicken this way: in the roasting pan go the potatoes and veggies.  On top of those, I set a small rack (the same kind I use for cooling baked goods), and on top of that, I set the chicken.  This allows for more even cooking than if the chicken sits directly on top of the vegetables.

You can truss the chicken, as you see I did here, but honestly I’ve roasted without and just don’t think it’s necessary.  Roast the chicken, breast side up, for 45 minutes to an hour, depending upon the size of your bird.

Make sure you let the bird rest for 10-15 minutes before cutting into it.  Divide the bird into breasts, legs, & wings, but watch out for eager kitchen visitors trying to snatch bites from over your shoulder (ahem, cough, Jill, cough cough).

CURRY CHICKEN SALAD

My version of the classic.  You’ll see I like my chicken salad chunky, but feel free to chop everything into smaller pieces if you prefer.  Tastes even better the next day.

chicken salad sandwich
ingredients:

2 cups cooked chicken breast meat, chopped
1 apple, peeled, cored, & small-diced (I used a McIntosh)
1 rib celery, small-diced
½ cup pecans, toasted & chopped
¼ cup red onion, small-diced

1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup Dijon mustard
1 tsp. curry powder
splash of white wine vinegar or lemon juice
salt & pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients.  Serve on toasted bread or, if you must, lettuce.

HOMEMADE CHICKEN STOCK

Just as with roasting a chicken, there’s no one way to make chicken stock.  If you do make it at home, though, I swear on my Kitchen Aid mixer that it will be about 8 million times better than the stuff you can buy at the store.

Time is your friend when making chicken stock, so you can’t be in a rush.  I find that a minimum of 3-4 hours are required for a concentrated, brightly-hued batch.

chicken stock on the stove

ingredients:

chicken carcass
2 onions
3 carrots
3 ribs celery
2-3 cloves garlic
fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
splash of vinegar
salt & pepper

optional: white wine

If you roast the vegetables with the chicken, you can cut everything into big pieces and transfer them directly to a large pot along with the chicken carcass when you’re ready to make stock.  Deglaze the roasting pan with white wine and then add that liquid to the pot as well.

If you’re making stock separately, dice the veggies and sweat them out in the stock pot first, with a little olive oil.  Once they’re translucent, add the chicken carcass and enough water to cover the whole mess.  Throw in the seasonings and a splash vinegar (said to help draw flavor out of the bones).

Bring to a boil and then simmer on low to medium heat, skimming the surface to remove any foam that appears in the first hour or so of cooking.  After that, keep an eye to see how the liquid is reducing down the side of the pot.  Once you can see a three-to-four-inch gap between where you started and where you are now, you’re in business.  Like I said, give it at least three hours.

Allow the mixture to cool a bit before removing the carcass with tongs and then straining the liquid through a sieve.  Discard vegetables and pick carcass clean of any extra meat bits.

Store the chicken stock in the refrigerator or freezer in an airtight container.  The fat solids will rise to the top upon cooling; if you like, you can remove them.  I don’t!


CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP

I made a noodle-less version of this soup for my friend Courtney a few weeks back, when she was feeling rather under-the-weather (see: germy students).  She texted me the next day to say “I’m healed!  And I’m pretty sure it was your soup that did it.”  Hey, maybe becoming that grandma after all!

Credit for this recipe goes to Chef Roger Elkhouri, who taught the only cooking class I’ve ever taken.  He was the head chef for my dorm in college and even though I hold him responsible for my Freshman 15 (it was bread and cakes for me, people, not beer!), he’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met and a culinary hero still.

chicken noodle soup

ingredients:

1 yellow onion, diced
2 ribs celery, sliced thickly at a diagonal
2 carrots, peeled & sliced thickly at a diagonal
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
6 cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
2 whole cloves
1 tsp. curry powder
½ tsp. nutmeg

2 cups cooked chicken, shredded
4 cups broad egg noodles, cooked

Cook the onion, celery, & carrots in the bottom of a soup pot in a little vegetable oil.  Add the garlic once the vegetables have begun to soften.  Once the mixture is translucent, add the stock and spices.

Bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer gently at least thirty minutes.  Add the chicken and egg noodles to warm through.  Remove bay leaf, cinnamon stick, & cloves before serving.

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BACON SCONES: CHEDDAR/SCALLION & MAPLE/PECAN

First off, a disclaimer: if the quality of today’s pictures seems a bit wobbly to you, that’s because I took them.  Instead of the badass Sonya.

sonya at work

{Badass Sonya is going to be real mad that I’m posting this picture of her being a badass but she’ll just have to get over it.}

I’ve never, ever been a photographer or anything close.  I knew when I started this blog that I would need serious help in the picture-taking department, and luckily Sonya was up for the job.  She has, in fact, gone above and beyond what I ever imagined; I must say that the success of BJG hinges largely on her extraordinary talent.

In an effort to cultivate that talent, Sonya and I participated in a very fun food photography workshop with photography rock star Penny de los Santos.  I decided to tag along, despite my non-photographer status, because I figured I would be able to learn how I can assist Sonya is taking the quality of BJG photographs to the proverbial “next level.”

In fact, I did learn a lot about how great food photography gets made and had the pleasure of getting to meet and chat with Penny in person.  (She then so generously visited us here at BJG and even left us a comment on the “About” page!  Did I “squee” when I saw her comment?  Maybe.)  But the coolest thing that happened was: I got behind a camera myself and took some pictures!

frenchie fries

You know, as adults, we generally spend our time doing things we are good at doing.  We’ve chosen our careers that way, culled our hobbies down the ones which best suit us.  We are choosy with our time so why devote any of it to an unfamiliar endeavor?  Not to mention, it’s hella scary to try something I have no idea how to do.  I am so accustomed to being competent and on top of things, it’s such a huge function of my identity.  So I was more than just a little confronted by the act of picking up a camera and photographing some food.

Of course, as I relaxed into the afternoon and gave up the ridiculous notion that I immediately had to be a photography prodigy, I had fun.  And really came to respect just how difficult it is to do what Sonya, Penny, & other photographers do.

Don’t fret, we’ll still be featuring Sonya’s gorgeous work 98% of the time.  But every once in a while, I conjure up some out-of-the-ballpark-winner-of-a-dish and she’s not around to capture its image.  So, I’m going to try my hand at taking halfway decent photographs, for the blog and for my own pleasure.  After just a week of playing around with the camera, I’m feeling high from the exertion and joy that comes with expanding my skill set and stretching myself out of my comfort zone.

Speaking of which, sharing my answers to the Proust Questionnaire with, you know, the entire free world makes me more than a little nervous.  But you, my readers, have been beyond generous in your support and cheering on of BJG in the last five months that I just couldn’t turn down your requests.  I’m flattered by your interest and would love to see your own responses.

Last but not least: the food itself!  We’ve got some gorgeous, clear, sunny, cool days ahead of us down here in Texas and I know these scones would be a perfect addition to any weekend plans you may have.  Perfect for game-watching, either indoor or out, tailgating, sitting-out-in-the-backyard-ing, reading-in-a-chair-ing, picnicking, brunch-ing, or just general lazing about.

These scones are a riff on a recipe a friend passed along—I felt they would be a perfect “out in the field” hunting snack for Jill to take along and share with the guys.  We’ll see what they say about ‘em Sunday!

BACON SCONES: CHEDDAR/SCALLION & MAPLE/PECAN

The goodness of these scones would not be possible without the generosity and talent of two incredible individuals: Al Marcus of Grateful Bread here in Houston, who sells the most incredible maple bacon I have ever put in my mouth and Meg Maker, who has become a friend over the last few months via Twitter and is so kind-hearted that she responded to my maple-syrup lament with a care package with a giant jug of top-quality stuff.

With beautiful products like Al’s bacon and pure New Hampshire maple syrup, the scones almost cooked themselves!  Per Al’s recommendation, I cut my bacon thick, about a ½ inch, then placed the slices on a broiler pan in a cold oven.  I turned the oven to 400° and let the bacon cook up until the oven was preheated & just a few minutes longer.

baaaacon

I made a big “master bowl” of scone starter, then divided it in half to make one batch of sweet and one of savory.  If you’re only interested in one of these versions, feel free to cut the starter in half.

oven: 400°
pan: two baking sheets lined with parchment or well-greased

ingredients:

4 cups all-purpose flour
1 stick unsalted butter, cold & cut into pieces
10 T shortening
1 ½ T baking powder
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt or 1 tsp. table salt

Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl.  Cut the fat into the flour mixture until the dough resembles small-to-medium-sized pebbles.

Divide the starter evenly between two bowls.

CHEDDAR/SCALLION SCONES
: cheddar/scallion scones

ingredients:

2 slices (approx. 1 ½ oz.) bacon, cooked, cooled, & chopped
½ cup grated cheddar cheese*
¼ cup chopped scallions/green onions
½ cup buttermilk + extra for glaze.

On a floured surface, pat the dough out into a rough circle.  Cut into wedges and place on baking sheets.  Brush each scone with extra buttermilk as a glaze.

Bake 15-20 minutes, until the scones are light brown and firm to the touch.  Cool briefly before enjoying.

*I used a nice extra sharp and recommend splurging on good-quality cheese.

MAPLE/PECAN SCONES: maple/pecan scones

ingredients:

2 slices (approx. 1 ½ oz.) bacon, cooked, cooled, & chopped
1 cup pecans, chopped*
¼ cup half and half
¼ cup maple syrup + extra for glaze

Mix all ingredients into the starter, distributing add-ins evenly and being careful not to over-mix.  Dough will be very wet, so don’t freak out!

On a floured surface, pat the dough out into a rough circle.  Cut into wedges and place on baking sheets.  Brush each scone with extra maple as a glaze.

Bake 15-20 minutes, until the scones are light brown and firm to the touch.  Cool briefly before enjoying.  Serve with extra maple, butter, or jam.

*I didn’t pre-toast them and the scones were still delicious…but next time I think I will.

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BROWN SUGAR POUNDCAKE

I’m asking my students to answer an amended version of the Proust Questionnaire this week.  And I swear I can hear their brains working as they write.

brown sugar poundcake side view

Used by Vanity Fair magazine since 1993 as a “back page” feature, the Proust Questionnaire is so named because the famous French author believed that answering this set of questions revealed one’s true nature.

My eighth graders are at a particularly pointed place in their development and understanding of themselves; not kids anymore but not quite adults, they strain against the limits of what they know and what they want, what they are allowed to have versus what they feel, deeply.  Everything is changing for them all of the time, and there’s little they can control.

Hence the questionnaire.  This deep and difficult set of questions forces the respondent to become very clear about who they are and what they want.  While it seems like it should be easy—I should be an expert on the topic of myself, right?—for me and my students, these questions have forced us to think about who we are and who we want to be.

In answering these questions along with my kids, I’m disturbed a bit by how easy it is to forget that there is no one fixed way for me, Nishta Jaya Mehra, to be in the world.  I act as if “this is how I am” but my being wasn’t set by my birth; it’s constantly in flux, and I am in the one in control of that, even though it often feels like the circumstances are.

At once empowering and totally scary, this week in my class we are taking on the idea that we get to say who we are.  We get to change ourselves, experiment with our expression, make mistakes and clean them up.  We put ourselves out there in the world and hope for the best.

If the best hasn’t come your way this week, might I suggest a poundcake?  Because while who I am is changing all of the time, my love for butter will never, ever die.

butter makes it better

BROWN-SUGAR POUNDCAKE

This recipe makes a LOT of batter; it filled not only my mom’s big ole bundt pan but also a few little mini-loaf pans on the side.  I’ll be you could halve this pretty easily, but the thing is—this cake is delicious.  You could freeze it, give it away, or just, you know, eat it.  I think it would be especially darling baked into wee little cupcakes or muffins!)

I made a very simple glaze of powdered sugar, milk, & vanilla, but the recipe came with a fancier glaze idea, which I’ve included below.  Haven’t tried it yet, so please let me know if ya’ll do.

ingredients: brown sugar pound cake top view

3 cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup milk
1 ½ cups (3 sticks) butter, softened
1 one-pound box dark brown sugar (about 2 ¾ cups)
½ cup white sugar
5 eggs

oven: 325°
pan: original recipe calls for greasing & flouring a 10-inch tube pan or two 9 X 5-inch loaf pans, but I’m skeptical that all of this batter would fit into those configurations.  I recommend having some extra pans on hand!

Whisk the dry ingredients with a fork.  Combine the vanilla & milk in a separate bowl & set aside.

Beat the butter on its own until light and fluffy.  Add the brown sugar in three batches, then the white sugar all at once.  Scrape down the bowl & continue to beat well, adding the eggs one at a time.

You know what’s coming!  Alternately add the dry mixture (flour, etc.) and the wet ingredients (milk & vanilla) in several batches, starting & ending with the dry.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pans and bake.  Time will vary widely depending on the shape/size of your pans.  Cupcakes/muffins will take between 25-30 minutes, the loaf pans, 45-50.  My bundt baked for over an hour, until the cake tester revealed nice, moist crumbs on the inside.

Cool the cakes on a wire rack, giving larger cakes a generous amount of time.  Turn the cakes out and eat/glaze/wrap up.

QUICK CARAMEL GLAZE

½ cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup light-brown sugar
½ cup evaporated milk
4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 tsp. vanilla

Melt the butter and brown sugar in a saucepan.  Cook for 2-3 minutes, then add the evaporated milk and let the icing come to a gentle boil.  Stir well.

Remove from heat, then add the confectioner’s sugar and vanilla.  Beat well, by hand or with a mixer, for a few minutes until the glaze thickens and looses some sheen.

Pour immediately over the cake or the glaze will harden.

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SPICY SHRIMP, TWO WAYS

First off, thanks so much to all of you for your love, sympathy, and good wishes.  It’s amazing how all of that feeling really does travel across space & time to make a difference.  I remember that sensation when my father died; it was as if I could literally reach out and touch the compassion being sent my way from people all over the world.  They were holding me up, buffering me.  Astonishing.

Ganesh

I know that there are much more dramatic, intense, & devastating events than the loss of an old dog; the world is full of so much sadness and hurt that if I think about it too much, it literally impairs my ability to function.  Behind every ambulance siren or news item is someone whose life is changing forever, someone whose idea of a live-able life looks, by necessity, drastically different from mine.

Life can be kind of terrifying, right?  Jill’s getting on a plane this afternoon to fly away to Egypt for a conference, and while I am terribly excited for her, in the moments I allow myself to imagine my life without her I am utterly broken open.  Someday, too, my mother will die and I just don’t know what to do about that.

I also know that it doesn’t do to dwell on these things.  A life of terror and worry is useful to no one and does nothing to thwart the inevitable.  But I do want to be mindful of the preciousness of my days, to balance being blithe and joyful with an ocean of earnest feeling.  I never want to forget that potent urgency I experienced after losing my father, the absolute necessity of living life in this moment instead of planning for “someday.”  For months, I walked around so mad I could spit to see all of these human beings wasting time as if they had time to waste.  The job they found unfulfilling, the relationship they refused to mend, the feelings they wouldn’t share, the project or plan or dream they kept putting off.

Last week, I went to see the Alley Theatre’s very fine production of Thornton Wilder’s American classic, Our Town.  Like many, I saw it first in high school.  Coming to it some ten years later allowed for a potency of reflection I wasn’t anticipating.  The quote my friend Marynelle wrote for me on her senior “goodbye” poster means much more to me now than it did then:

Emily: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?–every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. The saints and poets, maybe–they do some.

While it may be somewhat impossible to get every, every minute, I’m working on more every day.  The lovely purple tulips on my desk, my students who make me laugh, my beloved who sings along to Chaka Khan in her big red truck, my dear friends who delight and care for me—all hang in the balance of what I love and what I’d miss (like Jill & her bff Bonnie):

Jill & Bonnie

Perhaps you are one of those people who revisit the same movie, book, or play every year or every couple of years.  I love the idea of coming back to words and scenes which stay constant while we change, measuring ourselves against them as a kind of yardstick.

Right now I’m planning a re-read of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, to see how/if it will move me, ten years later.  I return regularly to The Bhagavad Gita, of course, and The Tao Te Ching.  Other re-reads I’d like to take on include Little Women (Alcott), The Glass Bead Game (Hesse), & Crime and Punishment (Dostoevksy).

What about ya’ll?

Don’t worry, in all of this “deep” talk, I haven’t forgotten about the food!  Two spicy shrimp dishes here: the first is a favorite of my father’s, the latter certainly would have been, and both are excellent for football watching (Sonya & Jill tested them out a few weekends back).

CHIPOTLE BAKED SHRIMP
Adapted from Gourmet, August 2000

Look for smoky chipotles in adobo sauce on the International Foods aisle, with other Mexican condiments.  You won’t need a whole can, so buy a pork tenderloin while you’re at it for some really good sandwiches.

I’ve made this recipe both with the shells on and the shells off.  Tastes great either way, but shells on is more fun and also messy—you shell them as you eat, slurping up extra sauce.

ingredients:shrimps

1 ½ – 2 lb shrimp

½ stick unsalted butter

¼ cup dry white or red wine

1 ½ T Worcestershire sauce

half a can chipotles in adobo sauce, peppers minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp. salt

must serve with: a baguette or other crusty bread, for sopping up sauce

oven: 400°

Melt butter in saucepan or microwave.  Add in the wine, Worcestershire sauce, chipotles & sauce, garlic, and salt. Toss the shrimp with sauce.

Bake the shrimp in a shallow dish for 10-12 minutes.  Serve in wide bowls with plenty of sauce & bread on the side.*

*If you like, you can remove the shrimp from the baking pan & reduce the sauce on the stove before serving.

BUFFALO GRILLED SHRIMP
Slightly adapted from Gourmet, July 2009

I’m not sure what more to say about this except that it’s really, really good.  And that you’ll need a lot of napkins.

For the dip:
½ cup sour cream (use half thick yogurt & half sour cream for a slightly healthier option)

½ cup crumbled blue cheese (I used a wonderfully pungent Maytag)

¼ cup chopped green onions

2 T finely chopped dill

juice of half a lemon

a little buttermilk or milk, to thin the dip (skip if you used the yogurt)

salt to taste

Stir together everything except the buttermilk/milk.  Then mix in a tablespoon or two until you reach your desired consistency.  Personally, I like my blue cheese dip really chunky.

For the shrimp: shrimp, celery, & blue cheese

1 ½ – 2 lbs shrimp, peeled & deveined
½ stick melted butter
¼ cup hot sauce *
olive oil

must serve with: many celery sticks!

I made the shrimp in a grill pan over medium-high heat, but the original recipe calls for an outdoor grill.  Oil either the pan or rack and then toss the shrimp with a little olive oil, salt, & pepper.

Grill until just cooked through, about 7-8 minutes depending on the heat of your grill.

Stir together butter and hot sauce in a large bowl. Add shrimp and toss until they are coated.

As official BJG taste-testers, Jill and Sonya suggest eating the shrimp plain and “chasing” them with celery dipped in the blue cheese dip.  This, they found, was more effective than trying to dip the shrimp themselves.

*We used Louisiana Hot Sauce, Gourmet recommends Frank’s RedHot.

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DIWALI 2009

Late Friday afternoon, we had to say goodbye to our sweet old girl.

us & our old lady

All things considered, our Lucky Dog lived up to her name.  She didn’t have to suffer through a prolonged illness or regular trips to the vet.  The two people who love her most were right there with her when she died.  LD enjoyed an incredibly high quality of life right up until the very end, something we don’t take for granted.

But I’m still walking around like a zombie in her absence.  Having an old dog, you try to prepare yourself for the inevitable.  But as with any loss, I’ve found you can’t really understand what it will be like until you are there.  Our whole family life revolved around that dog—coming home to let her out, feeding her, changing her diapers, baking her dog bones, rubbing her belly.  She was my first pet, Jill’s faithful hunting partner, and a source of much joy and comfort to both of us.

Needless to say, we came home Friday to a very hollow house.  A very hollow house that had been, up to that point, in the throes of preparation for a very large party the following night.

collage

During each of the four autumns since my father died, I’ve thrown a party to celebrate the Hindu Festival of Lights, Diwali.  My first was a small graduate school gathering in my tiny apartment in Tucson—I kept my mom on culinary consultation via cell phone and somehow managed to coax my tiny stovetop into making large pots of rice pudding (kheer) and my father’s favorite kidney bean stew (rajma).  Jill came into town and poured drinks for everyone.  My fellow writers wrapped the patio in lights, brought candles, decorated my sidewalk with chalk drawings.  We stayed up late that night, sitting on the floor of my apartment, the conversation intimate, warm.

Since then, the logistics have expanded considerably but my intentions haven’t changed.  I seek to honor my father, remember him, commemorate him, make him proud.  As with all of my cooking endeavors, I work to earn my place next to my mother and every other kitchen goddess/hostess/Southern gentlewoman I watched growing up, gracious, willful, relentless.  I like the hard work that comes with feeding forty-five people intricate food you made from scratch.  I revel in the ache and feeling that I have squared myself firmly inside my heritage (albeit with a few first-generation twists).

This year, Jill and I considered, for maybe thirty seconds, calling off the party.  But I don’t think it was ever really an option in either of our minds.  What better time to have a house-full of people we love?  Not to mention, what on EARTH would we have done with all of the food I had already made?

diwali food 2

So, the show went on, as the show must do, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the best one yet.  You know those occasions when you can feel a place hum with love and good will?  It was one of those.  We saw the smiling faces of some of our favorite people, hugged them, fed them good food, and felt grateful for our life, with everything in it.

I’m humbled by two things right now:

  • The beings I love, love, love with all my might and heart and soul and body, will die someday and I can’t control when or how.  When they are gone, it will hurt irreparably.
  • There are some truly incredible beings in my life.

Take, for example, Leslie, a friend from high school who now sells the loveliest stationery on Etsy and transformed my vague idea for an invitation into this striking card:

diwali-invite

My creative librarian colleague Heather, who manufactured the most beautiful cardstock-and-vellum labels for all of the evening’s food:

diwali-heather label

Or our dear friends Courtney and her husband John, who showed up at our house on Friday night with bags of Thai food and these votive-holders, which they crafted out of baby food jars, copper wire, and the loveliest quotes about light.  I think they’re going to become a permanent fixture in our window:

diwali-candles

My college roommate and talented artist Rebecca swathed the tables in sun colors, rose petals, flowers, and even incorporated pictures of our sweet girl at the last minute:

diwali-LD on table

I could go on and on—indomitable photographer Sonya, whose good work you see all over this post, my beloved Jill, who cleaned our house from top to bottom, wrapped the fence in lights, and set out all of the rental tables and chairs, and the kind-hearted Meg of Maker’s Table, who served as our wine consultant, recommending wonderful bottles  in my price range that would pair nicely with the evening’s spicy food.

Speaking of food, we set out quite a spread, if I may say so myself:

For appetizers, we had:

  • Indian fruit salad with mango, pineapple, pomegranate, & star fruit
  • Bhel Puri, a build-your-own Indian street food featuring spicy potatoes atop a bed of crunchy chick-pea flour snacks, onion, cilantro, & one or both of tamarind and coriander chutneys
  • grilled Halloumi cheese atop mini-pitas with mango chutney and onion relish

Dinner:

  • Lamb Koftas (spicy meatballs in a tomato/sour cream gravy)
  • Saag Paneer (greens with homemade cheese)
  • Channa Masala (North Indian-style chickpea stew)
  • Sweet potatoes & green beans with mustard seeds
  • Basmati rice pilaf
  • Achar (cauliflower, carrot, & jalapeño pickle)
  • Raita (homemade yogurt with grated cucumber & salt)
  • Naan (which I purchased and I did NOT make!)

For dessert, I made Indian-style chai and served up little bowls of Suji Halwa, a kind of porridge made with cream-of-wheat, butter, cardamom, & nuts.  Sounds a little strange, but it’s delicious.

I’m afraid I don’t have all of the recipes ready to post for you here—I cooked in enormous quantities and Sonya wasn’t always around to document the process.  I plan to re-run some of these items and measure more closely next time, so if there are any dishes you are particularly interested in having a recipe for, please let me know.

In the meantime, though I don’t have photographic evidence of it, I did concoct a cocktail which we served at the start of the party.  This drink was a HIT—we went through several pitchers of it before moving onto wine & beer with dinner.

A little bit exotic and very easy to make, this guava concoction paired well with the strong Indian food flavors that were being served; I suspect it would also work well with other Asian cuisines or Mexican food.  If you’ve never had guava nectar, try it!  It has a slightly puckery, but also sweet flavor, distinctive and likeable.

I think I’m going to christen them Lucky Dogs.

collage3

LUCKY DOGS (Guava Cocktails)

This recipe makes a pitcher’s worth, but you could easily adjust it for a smaller batch.  Find guava nectar in the International Foods aisle of your grocery store, either in the Mexican or Indian section.  Nectar can also be found in specialty stores of the same type.

4 cups guava nectar*

2 bottles ginger beer* (I love Reed’s)

1 cup vodka (want to try substituting gin—if any of ya’ll do, let me know how it goes!)

juice of 4 limes

Combine all ingredients in a large pitcher, stir with a large spoon.  Would look lovely garnished with a spring of mint and/or wedge of lime.  You know, if you weren’t serving 45 people all at once.

* Chill these ahead of time or serve the cocktail over ice.

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FEELIN’ KINDA SUNDAY: STUFFED MUSHROOMS

This is one of those “back pocket” recipes; an easy-to-make, hard-to-mess-up crowd-pleaser you keep on hand and whip out when you need something tried and true.  Oh stuffed mushrooms, you have never failed me:

stuffed mushrooms
Mushrooms are an ingredient I tend to buy more of as the weather cools.  Their rich earthiness  seems right, somehow, for fall.  I’ve made these junior stuffed mushrooms many times, for dinner parties, Thanksgiving, and football Sundays, of course.

The best thing about ‘em?  You can pre-make everything ahead of time, leaving the stuffed mushrooms on a foil-covered broiler pan in the fridge until ready to bake off.  They’re also relatively cheap to make (especially if you go vegetarian) and still work with all kinds of variations: use couscous instead of breadcrumbs, add in sautéed peppers for a kick, substitute green onions for regular ones.

Though the little ones are most fun for a party or get-together, stuffed portabellas are wonderful for a weeknight dinner, since you can prep them the night before.  One of my favorite stuffings for big ‘shrooms: chorizo, wild rice, celery, & bell pepper.

At the moment, I’ve got a lot in my back pocket (both literally & figuratively):

-stewing over logo designs (!) for the new-and-improved BJG website I hope to debut in early 2010…printable recipes?  You asked for them, you’ll get them!

-joyous celebration that a cold-ish front seems to finally be coming through Texas

-a final grocery list to attend to, along with a million details and “to-dos” before 45 (count them, forty-five) people descend on our house tomorrow night for the annual Carroll/Mehra Diwali Party!

I hope to share a lot more about the party with you next week; our amazing photographer Sonya will be here, documenting every dish and celebratory moment. Look for lots of photographs, details, & a recipe or two on Tuesday.

We are excited, busy, and hopeful that it will not rain.  Most importantly, I feel grateful to have the resources and time to gather the people I love around me and feed them large quantities of food.

I’ll catch ya’ll on the flip side!  In the meantime, enjoy your weekend.

STUFFED MUSHROOMS
The recipe here allows you to make both vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions in the same batch.  If you want to do meaty mushrooms only, go ahead and cook the sausage with the onions & stems.

ingredients: stuffed mushrooms curvy

2 packages white mushrooms, cleaned
1 white onion, chopped finely
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup plain breadcrumbs, store-bought or homemade
grated cheese of your choice (Parmesan, cheddar, Italian mix)
herbs de Provence
butter
olive oil

optional: one link of a sausage of your choice (I used mild Italian)

Remove stems from the mushrooms, reserving a little less than half.  Trim & chop the stems finely, adding them to the onions & garlic.

In a heavy-bottomed skillet, combine 3 T each of the butter & olive oil.  Let sit over medium heat until the butter is foamy, then add the chopped vegetables.

Sauté the mixture until translucent, then remove from heat and toss in the breadcrumbs.  Combine the mixture so the breadcrumbs are “wet.”

Fold in about a ¼ cup of cheese.  Season with 1 tsp herbs de Provence, then stop to taste for flavor & salt, making adjustments if needed.

In a separate pan, crumble and brown the sausage.  Reserve it for later—after you’ve stuffed the vegetarian mushrooms, mix the sausage into the remaining filling and stuff the other half.

Place the mushrooms on a broiler pan or baking sheet.  Stuff each mushroom with a small spoonful of filling (of course, bigger mushrooms will take more), mounding the filling just a bit at the top.

At this point, you can cover the mushrooms with foil and stash in the oven.  When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 350°.

Bake the mushrooms for 12-15 minutes until cooked through.  If you’d like a little crunch, you can turn on the broiler for just a minute or two, but watch the mushrooms carefully!

Serve warm.

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A FAREWELL TOAST

The food world has been loudly buzzing since Monday’s shocking announcement of the Gourmet magazine shut-down. All day yesterday and into today, foodies, bloggers, industry professionals, and (former) Gourmet employees have vented, ranted, mourned, and waxed nostalgic on Twitter and other forums. (I’m no exception.)

Really, I’m not qualified to say much about the closing of the magazine except that I’m surprised and will miss it terribly. Gourmet helped shape me (and many a budding foodie, I’m sure), shaping my aesthetic, building my culinary vocabulary, and offering me exposure to various cuisines and the cultures behind them. I’ve never been much of a magazine subscriber, since there seems to be much more fluff than substance out there, but Gourmet was one I have been happy to pay for. So, even though I had originally scheduled this simple fig salad for today’s post, I just had to tack on a little farewell toast to Gourmet, featuring a cocktail from—of course—last October’s issue. Here’s to you, Gourmet, with many thanks.

champagne toast

FRENCH 75 COCKTAIL

serves 6-8

As you may already know, my honey is rather fond of sparkling drinks; I am rather fond of gin. This drink is the marriage of our alcoholic worldviews in a glass!

I think this would make an excellent substitution for mimosas at a brunch, or pair nicely with a birthday cake/celebratory dessert. They’re also pretty tasty just on their own.

ingredients:

a third of a cup (1/3) sugar

a third of a cup (1/3 ) water

½ cup gin (I used Hendrick’s)

3 T fresh lemon juice

1 bottle well-chilled Champagne

Make a simple syrup by heating the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Let the syrup cool, then add the gin & lemon juice. Chill the syrup until cold.*

To assemble the cocktails, pour 2 T of gin mixture into each glass. Slowly top off with Champagne.

[I rimmed my Champagne glass with some coarse sanding sugar, but the original recipe recommends you garnish with lemon zest—a candied version would be nice, too!]

*Gin syrup can be made ahead & chilled.

FALL FIG SALAD

More of an idea than a recipe, I owe the inspiration for this salad from my Shaila Aunty, who grows beautiful green figs in her Memphis backyard. She’s not actually my aunt; she’s one of the many men and women from our close-knit Indian community who raised me as one of their own.

I can’t adequately express how much or how many ways I admire my Aunty—she’s a passionate philanthropist, wife, parent, & friend, possesses an incredible talent for painting, reads prolifically, and is an excellent cook. She has loved and supported me since before I was born, and she taught me to put figs in my salad.

Figs are almost assaultingly sensual and luscious; I love how they look atop a bed of mixed greens. Since several varieties are still in season, fig salad can be a great counterpoint to roast chicken or other fall dish. If you decide to add prosciutto, though, you could serve large bowls of the salad alongside a vegetable soup with some crusty bread.  Leftover figs?  Serve them for dessert over vanilla ice cream.

ingredients: zoomed in fig salad

mixed greens

figs, quartered

Parmesan or Pecorino Romano

chopped pecans (I used candied, but you could use plain)

optional: prosciutto

dressing: balsamic vinaigrette–you could use pre-made or make your own, like I did.  Any chance to use my fig-infused balsamic!  But you could also try this method for quickly infusing your own (just substitute “fig” for “strawberry” in the recipe).

Set the quartered figs atop a salad bowl full of greens. Scatter generous handfuls of pecans over the bowl, then top with fat shavings of cheese. If using prosciutto, snake the strips through the salad before dressing it.

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ONION RINGS

My mother, she’s a very wise woman.  When I was still rather young, she impressed on me the importance of my someday finding a partner who loved onions (and garlic) as much as I did.  “Otherwise, they won’t want to kiss you.”*

raw red onion

You see, I love onions.  I love them raw, I love them sautéed, I love them caramelized, baked, roasted, fried, pickled…well, you get the picture.  In all of their pungent, tear-inducing, breath-polluting glory, onions hold a prominent place in my culinary heart.

Growing up in an Indian household, as I did, onions (or piaj) were a regular feature on the table, raw and sliced thinly as an accompaniment to rice, daal (lentils), dahi (yogurt), and kheera (cucumber).  I learned to love the wet bite of onion as a foil for spicy, complex dishes, a way to slice through grease and access the tastebuds.

Quickly, I started eating my piaj with a lot of other, non-Indian things: pizza, hamburgers, turkey sandwiches, grilled cheese.  I know.  Some of you are out there gagging (like blog photographer Sonya, who is no fan of the raw onion), but hopefully even the biggest onion-skeptic can appreciate these:

fried onion rings
Behold the onion ring, a thing of beauty!  It comes in many variations (shoe-string, tempura-battered, jumbo-sized, etc.) but like most fried stuff, even a bad onion ring is a tempting one.

I’ve been an onion ring connoisseur for a long time, often preferring them (gasp!) to French fries when eating out, but had never tried to make them on my own until a few months ago.  Needless to say, in a household where I am lucky to have met & settled down with a fellow-onion-lover*, they were a hit.

Jill proclaimed them the best onion rings she’d ever eaten.  And girlfriend’s from Louisiana, so she knows her fried foods.  These are, I admit, a little bit labor-intensive.  But hot damn!, they are worth it.

ONION RINGS

These rings, as you can see, do not sport a heavy jacket of batter.  Rather, they’re lightly coated and extremely crisp.  I use a three-layer breading: flour first, then buttermilk, then cornmeal/breadcrumbs.  The secret is using one hand for the buttermilk step and the other hand for the last step.  If you don’t, things will become gummy realllll fast.  Be sure to have everything set up before you begin!

ingredients:

1-2 red onions (more if you’re feeling extra-ambitious)
flour
buttermilk or regular milk
yellow cornmeal
Panko breadcrumbs (look for them in Asian/Japanese aisle)
Tony’s or another all-purpose seasoning
Salt & pepper

A fair amount of Canola or peanut oil

Pour oil into a deep, heavy-bottomed pot until it reaches 2-3 inches up the sides.  Heat on medium high while prepping the onions.

Peel the onions and cut off the ends, discarding.  Slice carefully into thin (¼-inch) rounds.  Separate out into individual rings, then place in a large Ziploc bag.

Dump between ½ – 1 cup of flour in the bag, depending on your quantity of rings.  Season lightly with salt & pepper.

You’ll need two wide and shallow bowls.  In one, pour in the (butter)milk.  In another, mix equal amounts of cornmeal and breadcrumbs.  Add 1 tsp. of Tony’s seasoning and stir to distribute evenly.

Now, for a trick: drizzle a small amount of buttermilk into the cornmeal/breadcrumb mixture, then rake through it all with a fork.  This will create small clumps which, when fried, will equal extra-crunchy goodness.

Part One: seal the Ziploc bag with the onions and flour inside, then shake the heck out of it, coating all of the rings.

Part Two: Transfer between 4-5 rings (depending upon the size of your bowls) to the buttermilk mixture.  Muddle them around with your LEFT HAND to get them wet.

Part Three: Transfer the same rings into the cornmeal/breadcrumb mixture.  Press down with your RIGHT hand to coat one side, tossing some of the mixture up and around to all sides.  Don’t worry if the rings aren’t totally coated.

Part Four: Fry away!  Your oil should be hot and shimmery at this point, not smoking.  (Remove from the burner to cool if it is.)  Test your oil with a single ring—the oil should immediately bubble around it.

Add a small handful of rings when the oil is ready, keeping an eye on the heat.  If the onions brown too quickly, turn the heat down.  After a few batches, though, you may very well need to turn the heat up to compensate for loss of heat.

Fry the onion rings in batches, approximately 2 minutes on each side.  Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and serve hot.  They’re excellent plain, but also go nicely with ketchup, Sriacha, aioli, ranch, etc.

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