SUPERBOWL PARTY ROUND-UP

So the Superbowl’s not until NEXT Sunday, but in case you are as much of a crazy planner as I am , I’ve put together some BJG favorites that would work well as fuel to watch the Saints win by.  WHO DAT?

everything's possible via Etsy

Okay, okay, I understand some people are actually cheering for the Colts, but down here you’d be hard pressed to find one.  Houston took in a quarter-million Hurricane Katrina evacuees; 150,000 of them stayed and now call Texas their home. So we’re all pretty damn jazzed that our sister city finally has something to celebrate.

Of course, Superbowl party food tastes good no matter which team you’re rooting for (heck, it tastes good even if you’re just there to watch the commercials.)

Community tradition in the extended family group went like this: Thanksgiving at the Mehra (our) house, Christmas at the Karkeras’, Ganesh Pooja at Priya Aunty’s house, Diwali Party at Chanchala Aunty’s house, & Superbowl Party at Ashok Uncle & Bina Aunty’s.  This final party was a raucous, ornately ritualed affair: touch football games in the morning, afternoon naps for our Dads during which we kids quietly worked on our team posters, face paint and team colors layered on, giant graphs of squares marked off with a ruler, quarters collected as we all placed bets, televisions stationed in every possible room of the party house, including the bathroom.

A room for AFC fans, a room for NFC fans.  Opposite cheers arising like warring choruses as the game wore on—the room shushing instantly as each new commercial aired—Ashok Uncle & Bina Aunty’s dog Sergeant growing fatter by the minute as he vacuumed up dropped or neglected snacks.  Because, did I fail to mention?  There was always A LOT of food.  And you can, too.

margaritas & guacamole

Chex mix

spicy Buffalo shrimp

hummus

Mexican-style pork tenderloin sandwich

stuffed mushrooms

tortilla rolls

molasses cookies

lemon squares

Share/Save/Bookmark

ACHAR

I don’t really speak Hindi.  It is the only way, and I mean this truly, apart from melodrama it may connote, it is the only way in which I feel at all like a failure in life.  I can understand a great deal of Hindi when spoken to, I know my colors and numbers and (of course) food items, but I can’t really form sentences on my own in order to respond back.  The alphabet I recognize, and I can sound out words phonetically but my vocabulary isn’t so great and my writing ability is limited to signing my own name.

I can hear my mother: “I know, I know, we screwed up big time!”  My one big wish, that they had taught me when I was a baby.  They didn’t because they thought it would be best. Raising a child period seems scary enough to me, let alone raising one in a completely foreign country.  My parents feared that difference would haunt me, that I would be teased, encumbered by an accent.  For them, their voices were the main channels through which they encountered resistance, were flagged as “other.”

And so English was my first language.  It fact, it was the only language they spoke to me, around me, for a long time.  By the time I was old enough to wish for bilinguality, to request that my parents start speaking in Hindi around the house, they were rusty, throwing in English words where their vocabularies had gone soft.  I believe I was in college by the time I figured out that my father was actually trilingual (Punjabi), my mother an impressive quad (Punjabi, Urdu).  No need to worry about this daughter assimilating: I’m an all-American, English-only speaker.

I took one semester of Hindi in college, and struggled through the whole thing.  Perhaps it was the case of a naturally gifted student bucking up against something, for once, not coming naturally.  Perhaps I thought, of all things, this should.  I’ve also always been so totally intimidated by other Indian kids, to tell the truth.  Like they are part of some club I just don’t belong to.  They watch the movies, they have spent multiple summers in India, they hang out almost exclusively with other Indians.  They knew much more of the language than I did.  Me?  I took a geeky, dead language (Latin) in high school and have a terrible ear for accents and intricacies.  Thank goodness I took that class pass/fail.  Needless to say, I did not go back for Hindi 102.

A few years later, I put in a good effort with a set of those ubiquitous Rosetta Stone CD-ROMs before my parents and I traveled to India, doing well enough to make my three weeks there a fertile time for my brain to absorb everything I heard. I found myself laughing at jokes, having mostly understood them, and even dreaming in Hindi for weeks after we got back.  Dreaming in another language is one of the most sublime things I have ever experienced, as if the gods had favored you: my child, you are authentic now.

But it didn’t last.  My father died, and somehow the desire to work on my Hindi died with him.  Losing him only highlighted how much I wish I spoke this language, how inadequate I feel not knowing it, how utterly defeated I am by the whole thing.  I find that I am ashamed, worried I seem like a fraud, such a white girl parading around in brown skin.  At some point, I’m just going to have to accept that I may never speak Hindi the way I want to—which might free me up to actually make a concerted effort to learn it instead of wishing I could just magically go back in time and learn how.

What I can do is cook the food.  And, for now, that is a kind of language in and of itself.

GAAJAR, GOBI, & HARI MIRCH ACHAR
(CARROT, CAULIFLOWER, & JALAPEÑO PICKLE)

This is, I’m afraid, one of those Indian recipes which calls for ingredients you probably don’t have on hand.  They can, however, be easily acquired at any Indian grocery store or good spice purveyor.

Though this recipe is for a pickle, there’s no reason you can’t eat it like a sabji (vegetable dish), especially if you are a fan of spice.  Otherwise, serve it alongside other Indian dishes as a condiment or with storebought papadum or other flatbread/cracker as an excellent appetizer.

spices:

1 ½ tsp. mustard seeds
1 ½ tsp. whole coriander
1 tsp. whole cumin
1 tsp. anise seeds
1 tsp. fenugreek seeds

Toast the spices in a small saucepan or toaster oven (set on low) for 5-8 minutes or until fragrant.  Cool the mixture a bit before grinding to a powder.

vegetables:

4 large carrots, peeled & cut into ¼ -inch slices
1 cup cauliflower florets
3 jalapeño peppers, sliced ½-inch thick

Place the vegetables into a heat-safe colander.  Pour 4 cups boiling water over them to soften/sterilize.

to make the achar:

¼ cup canola or vegetable oil
¼ cup lime or lemon juice
½ tsp. turmeric
¼ tsp. garlic powder
salt
asafetida (optional)

Heat the oil over medium in a deep, heavy-bottomed pot.  Add the turmeric and a few sprinkles of asafetida, if using.  Heat the spices and oil for a few minutes, then remove from the heat and toss in the vegetables.  Pour in the masala (spice) mixture, adding the garlic powder and a small palm-full of salt.

Toss everything to coat, adding in the lemon juice and a splash of hot water if you need more liquid.  In cold weather, you can jar the achar and leave it outside to sit overnight.  In warm weather, refrigerate immediately.

Achar will keep well-sealed, for 4-6 weeks.  Shake the jar before serving.

Share/Save/Bookmark

POACHED PEARS WITH POMEGRANATE

We’re reaching the end of pomegranate season here, which makes me a little sad.

There’s something downright seductive about the jewel-bright and difficult seeds of the fruit that tempted Persephone in the Underworld, the same fruit from which grenadine was originally made, its fuschia infamously staining to fingers, lips, pants, and shirt-fronts.

For years my father peeled me pomegranates. It was the only time I saw him wear an apron, seemingly wine-stained and spattered, tied delicately around his waist. He would buy the fruit by the case and shuck them, like pearl-laden oysters, by the half-dozen. Every fall a Tupperware container full of seeds kept constant in my family’s refrigerator, rid of their pith and ready for my consumption.

So now, the seemingly pain-in-the-ass task of undoing a pomegranate, exploring its honeycombed chambers and gently prying out the fruit (which is much easier to do when the pomegranate is submerged in a bowl of water, by the way)—it has become a kind of enactment for me, something deliberate and meaningful, connected to him and memory.

Also, you know, pomegranates are just plain delicious. You can use them in desserts or salads but I just like to throw back giant handfuls and chomp away. A few weeks ago, for a book club brunch, I wanted to make a fruit salad with some pomegranate seeds I had stored up in the fridge. The only other fruit I had in the house, though, were some Bosc pears, my go-to morning “It’s 10:00 and I am HUNGRY but it’s too early to each lunch, isn’t it?” snack.

In order to fancy things up a bit, I poached the pears before serving them with the pomegranate seeds, pouring a bit of the reduced poaching liquid over the whole dish.  My lovely book club ladies raved, and so I had to pass the idea along. This little dish would make a wonderful addition to a weekend brunch and could also serve as a light, elegant dinner party dessert.

POACHED PEARS WITH POMEGRANATE

Even when pomegranates are not available as an accompaniment, poached pears can be an elegant dessert. You can serve them warm, with ice cream, atop a tart or cake, alongside butter cookies, or with some cinnamon-spiked whipped cream.

When choosing a wine for poaching, go with something you know and like. Of course, a sweeter white will work well, as will a white with fruit or spice notes.

ingredients:

1 bottle white wine (I used this Viognier)

3-4 Bosc or Anjou pears

¼ cup sugar

1 cinnamon stick

1 whole vanilla bean

5-6 cardamom pods, lightly smashed

3-4 whole cloves

seeds from one pomegranate half

Pour the wine into a heavy saucepan, tossing in the spices. Add the sugar & stir until it dissolves. Heat the poaching liquid over medium heat until small bubbles form and wisps of heat rise from the top of the pan.

While waiting for the liquid to simmer, peel & core the pears. You may wish to poach them in halves, for a dramatic presentation, or in quarters or even slices—it’s up to you. Depending on how you slice them, you may have to poach in batches.

Once the liquid’s ready, cook the pears until they are tender, approximately 15-20 minutes. Adjust the heat so that the liquid does not come up past a gentle boil. When the pears are done, remove them and set aside, either to cool or to serve.

Strain the spices out of the saucepan and crank up the heat, bringing the liquid up to a boil. Reduce as much or as little as you like—there’s no wrong way to do this! Serve the pears warm or cold, on a bed of pomegranate seeds & doused with some of the syrupy liquid.

(Chances are, you’ll have at least a cup or two of poaching liquid/syrup leftover. Don’t throw it out! You can use it to moisten a pound or layer cake, combine it with powdered sugar for a flavorful icing, or play around using it as a cocktail mixer.)

Share/Save/Bookmark

SUJI HALWA

This is kind of a strange food.  And I feel a little strange blogging about it because I’m not sure any of you will ever end up making it.

Actually, that’s not true; I know at least one of you will.  When I wrote about our big ole Diwali party in October, I mentioned that suji halwa was the featured dessert, fellow blogger Cheryl requested a recipe.  I tucked her request away in my messy mental filing cabinet and am just now getting around to fulfilling it.

Suji halwa isn’t just a slightly weird Indian food I grew up eating; it’s a sacred, slightly weird Indian food I grew up eating.  Basically a sweetened cream-of-wheat, suji halwa is flavored with cardamom, often studded with nuts.

It’s traditional in North Indian, where my people are from, to use suji halwa as prashad, an edible offering brought to temple or puja, blessed in God’s presence and redistributed to those present as nourishment, in both the literal and figurative sense.  As a kid, I looked forward to Tuesday mornings because my mother would rise extra early to make a batch of suji halwa, then bless it through her morning prayers and feed it to me for breakfast.

I don’t think it’s any accident that most all of the world’s religions have traditions and rituals related to food—communion, fellowship, transubstantiation—it’s all an effort to connect to the ineffable through one of our most basic and necessary acts, eating.  We consume, we are consumed, we become one, we are molecularly joined.

This week has brought with it little moments of joy and extended scenes of the most terrifying loss and sadness.  To keep a constant, even if it’s something as humble as a porridge, builds constancy and assurance that this spinning world is still an okay place to be, in spite of the despair that comes with it.

From Diwali 2009: my dear friend Dave & his sister Diane. She is among the missing in Haiti.

SUJI HALWA

If you have ever visited a Hindu or Sikh temple, it’s likely you’ve tasted this stuff yourself.  Everyone’s version is a little bit different—what I like about my mom’s (outside of perfectly fusing with hundreds of Tuesday morning memories, of course) is that it isn’t at all greasy and goes great with a cup of tea.  Try it as a dessert or with a piece of buttered toast for an indulgent breakfast.

This recipe is all about ratios, so you can double it easily.

For the simple syrup, sugar: water, 1:2.
For the overall dish, suji: sugar = 1 :1 + 2 T.

ingredients:

1 cup water
1 cup plus 2 T sugar
1 cup fine suji (semolina)*
½ cup chopped nuts—almonds, pistachios, and/or cashews (optional)
5 T canola oil
2 T butter
1-2 tsp. ground cardamom

First, make the simple syrup by dissolving the sugar into the water and bringing it to a boil.  Set aside.

In a high-sided, heavy-bottomed pan with a lid, melt the butter with the oil over medium heat.  If using nuts, toast them in the butter until fragrant.  Add the suji and stir to coat so that you no longer see butter or oil at the bottom of the pan.

Brown the suji over medium heat, stirring regularly.  This is going to take a little while, between 8-10 minutes.  Patience, my child, patience.  You will be rewarded with an incredibly fragrant aroma and light brown color if you persist.  Don’t rush this step—the finished product won’t taste so good if you do.

Once things are toasted to your satisfaction, remove the pan from the heat and add the simple syrup.  It’s going to get splattery, so have your lid ready!  Return the covered pot to low heat and stir occasionally, using the lid as your shield.

Once the splattering has died down, add the cardamom, crank the heat back up to medium and cook until the syrup has evaporated and the suji has thickened.  The finished product should be scoop-able but still tight enough to hold up a teaspoon.

Serve warm.  Allow to cool before transferring to re-sealable containers for refrigerator (a few weeks) or freezer (a few months) storage.

*You’ll probably need to head to the Indian grocery store for this one, order online, or find packaged semolina at a specialty (natural foods or gourmet) store.

Share/Save/Bookmark

CHICKEN & DUMPLINGS

Regarding the pain of others, I am ever at a loss.

I haven’t gotten any better at figuring out what to do with these masses of grim humanity that get hurled our way, without warning, without reason, without pattern.  How are we to negotiate a world in which I can sit here, typing away on an expensive computer in a comfortable home stocked with food and supplies, while a few hundred miles south and east of me survival is far from certain and bodies are piling up in the street?

At the gym this week I found myself standing on the elliptical machine, my usual routine interrupted by this footage of the rawest, gnarliest grief and despair in a place that really isn’t that far away from me at all and I thought to myself AND WE ARE WORRIED ABOUT BURNING SOME CALORIES?

Paradox is the sea we all swim in.  I think perhaps the trick is to be aware of our contradictory selves, to fleece out any illusions about this wild and willful world.  To delight in what there is to delight in, to mourn what there is to mourn.  To give our best shot to holding it all in somehow.  To look at the screen, because we must.

My old neighborhood in Tucson was very close to the University and its Medical Center; a whole crew of dogs lived on our particular block, lording over dusty yards behind battered fences.  Whenever an ambulance would go by, the dogs would howl.  Pure, unadulterated noise.  It always seemed to me an appropriate herald: here, you see, pay attention, someone’s life is changing forever.

Two of my favorite people in the whole wide world are right now in the hardest possible places: waiting for news about mother and sister, respectively.  The former in a hospital ICU, the latter in Haiti. I love these human beings so much, more than I can rightly say and yet I cannot make their pain go away, I cannot fix this, I cannot do anything that will make a damn difference.

This is me, howling.


CHICKEN & DUMPLINGS

Sometimes all you can do is dish up a big pot of comfort, stand over the stove with a whisk in hand, scrape dumplings with all your heart and trust that it all adds up to something.

I’m from Memphis, so it’s practically a genetic obligation to be able to make this stuff.  Started adding leeks a few years back when I saw the idea in Cook’s Country magazine—I like the flavor they add, but it’s especially nice to have a dimension of color in the stew which is traditionally all-white.  While I don’t like to clutter my chicken & dumpling up with other veggies, you could easily add diced carrots to the leeks & onions and/or toss in frozen peas at the end.

Also, I’ve at times made a modified version of this recipe which is a little bit less high-maintenance and ostensibly healthier, given that it doesn’t involve rendered chicken fat.  If you have chicken stock & leftover roasted chicken, you can skip steps involving browning the thighs & just add your chicken meat to the stew when you pour in the milk.  Since you won’t have schmaltz for the dumplings, substitute butter.

for the broth:

4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

3 leeks, white & light green parts only, cut into thick rings & then in half

1 large yellow onion, diced

3 T flour

3 T dry sherry or cooking sherry

4 ½ – 5 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade

¼ cup whole or 2 % milk

2 T fresh or 2 tsp. dried tarragon

1 T fresh or 1 tsp. dried thyme

1 bay leaf

vegetable oil

butter

salt & pepper

for the dumplings:

1 ½ cups flour

1 T baking powder

1 tsp. salt

½ cup buttermilk

2-3 T chicken fat or butter

equipment: If you have a Dutch oven or enameled soup pot, this is the occasion to use it.  If not, use something tall with a heavy bottom.

Get your chicken nice and dry with the aid of some paper towels—this step is essential or it won’t cook up properly.  Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper, then heat up a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in the bottom of your pot over medium-high heat.

Brace yourself for some splattering–cook the chicken until the skin is brown & crisp on both sides, about 4-6 minutes on each side.  Move the chicken to a plate to cool a bit.  Pour off and reserve the delicious! chicken! fat! that has gathered at the bottom of the pot.  (You’ll use some of it for the dumplings, but I urge you to save whatever’s leftover for adding flavor to soups, roasts, even pie dough).

Return the pot to medium heat & melt a big ole knob (2-3 T) of butter in the bottom.  Add the leeks and onions to cook until soft, about 8 minutes.  Sprinkle flour on top of the vegetables, then whisk in the sherry, thickening the broth base.  Scrape the bottom of the pot to get all of the juicy bits, then stir in the chicken stock, milk, & herbs.

Remove the skin from the chicken thighs, then return them to the pot, cover it all, and let them simmer in the goodness to cook fully, 30-45 minutes.

When the chicken has cooked fully, turn off the heat and remove the thighs & the bay leaves from the pot.  Using forks, carefully shred the chicken meat off of the bone & return it to the pot.  Check and adjust the salt & pepper in the stew, then bring it back up to a simmer for dumpling-dropping purposes.

For the dumpling dough, combine all ingredients in a small bowl and stir until it looks like unappetizing paste.  Fret not!  They are going to taste de-li-ci-ous.  Using two big spoons, gather up a tablespoon’s worth of dough into one spoon then scrape it into the stew with the other. You’ll get the hang of it.

Fill the top of the pot with dumplings, leaving a bit of room because they will grow.  Reduce the heat on the stove to low and let the dumplings cook, turning them once, after about 10 minutes.  Cook the other side of the dumplings for another 10 minutes and then serve.

Share/Save/Bookmark

GREEN BEAN & SWEET POTATO SABJI

Please allow me to begin with the requisite disclaimers: I am but one Indian girl.  I do not represent all Indian people everywhere and I am by NO MEANS an expert on Indian food or cooking.  India is home to twenty-eight states, twice as many languages, and innumerable incarnations of what “Indian food” can look like.  Not to mention the fact that we Indians have disseminated ourselves all across the globe, mish-mashing our food cultures with the British, American, South African, Malaysian, etc.

Still…when I put out the call the other day to see what folks wanted to see more of on the blog, Indian food was the definite winner.  So I am giving in!  “The Food of My People” series starts today and will run every Tuesday for the next few months.  Don’t worry, for those of you utterly uninterested in making Indian food at home (no offense taken), “regular” fare will continue to show up every Friday.

The Indian recipes I’m going to post will be a total hodge-podge of regions and technique, utterly subjective and reflective of me.  They will also be fantastically delicious and adhere to the BJG standard of unfussy food OR fussy food that’s worth it.  I hope to expose you to more Indian “home cooking,” the kind of thing you can’t get in a restaurant and can pretty easily make at home (lots of those restaurant dishes aren’t very authentic or simple to make).  If you have any requests, throw them out in the comments or send me an email.  I’ll do my best to accommodate them!


One of the main things that can make cooking Indian seem intimidating are the seemingly exhaustive lists of unfamiliar ingredients; even I think it’s asking a lot for folks to go out and buy twenty spice bottles just to try one recipe.  For the purposes of this series, I’m listing some essentials and extras, the latter of which will serve those of you who’d like to build your Indian food repertoire.  If you’re uncertain about how frequently you’ll use these ingredients, I recommend you buy in small quantities (at a store which sells in bulk is a good choice.)  For the extras, get yourself to an Indian or Asian grocery store!  They can help you find what you’re looking for and the prices will be much cheaper.

ESSENTIALS:

•    fresh garlic
•    fresh ginger
•    onions
•    whole cumin seeds
•    ground cumin
•    ground coriander
•    ground red mirchi (chili), for heat

EXTRAS:

•    asafetida
•    cardamom
•    fresh cilantro
•    cumin seeds
•    fennel seeds
•    fenugreek seeds
•    garam masala
•    mustard seeds
•    sambar powder
•    turmeric

You’ll find that this recipe, like most of the rest I’ll be posting, makes a pretty good quantity of food.  That’s because I DON’T KNOW HOW TO MAKE SMALL AMOUNTS OF INDIAN FOOD.  It’s like, contrary to what I believe in.  You know?  Ethnic mothers who stuff you full at the table, then send you out the door with a plastic grocery bag full of old sour cream and Cool Whip containers, stuffed with leftovers?  I’m totally turning into one.

GREEN BEAN & SWEET POTATO SABJI

Serves 4 as a side, with leftovers

“Sabji” just means vegetable dish and this one is a favorite.  Simple and satisfying, this dish is a riff off of my mom’s original, which she made with white potatoes.  I personally like the way the flavor of the sweet potatoes plays off of the rich spices in this dish; serve it as an accompaniment to a meat entrée or as the main course itself, with store-bought naan or pita bread.

This recipe calls for just a few tablespoons of tomato paste, so opening a whole can of it is a pain.  I am in love with these tubes of paste from Amore.  Use what you need, then store the rest neatly in your fridge.

•    4 medium-to-large sweet potatoes
•    1 pound green beans
•    1/4 cup fresh ginger, peeled & minced
•    1 T black mustard seeds
•    1 T sambar powder
•    2 T tomato paste
•    ¼ teaspoon asfoetida (optional)
•    ½ cup water
•    3 T canola oil
•    salt

Prep the vegetables: peel & dice the sweet potatoes into roughly 1-inch chunks, then wash & remove the ends from the green beans, chopping them into inch-long pieces.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pan (with a fitted lid), heat the oil over medium-high heat. After 3-4 minutes, the oil should be quite hot but not smoking. Throw in the mustard seeds & sprinkle in the asfoetida. It’s essential to heat these two ingredients at the outset and let them get very hot or they will make the whole dish taste bitter.

Turn down the heat to medium; remove the pan from the heat, then add ginger. Return to the burner and cook until the ginger begins to soften, adding the sweet potatoes, sambar powder, water, & 1 T salt. Toss to ensure that the potatoes are well-coated with the spices.

Cover the dish, turn the heat down to medium-low, and allow the sweet potatoes to cook until tender, about 15 minutes.  Once you can “smush” a sweet potato with the back of your cooking spoon, add the green beans and cook for another 8-10 minutes, tossing in more water if necessary.

Once the green beans are bright and cooked to desired tenderness, fold in tomato paste to bind the dish. Taste the dish for salt & season accordingly.

Share/Save/Bookmark

FOCACCIA

Yeast doughs don’t have to be scary, I promise.  They can actually be rather friendly, spongy and springy and smelling of earth.  You mix some humble and frankly unimpressive ingredients together (flour, water, sugar, salt, & oil), contribute a little sweat in the form of kneading, then leave it all in a bowl and walk away, only to come back in a few hours to find this:

Well, okay, the focaccia won’t actually make itself, but that would take the fun out of it anyway.  Then you’d miss out on the authentic, even sexy experience of standing at a floured counter, working through the contents of your mind via a big hunk of dough.  Not to mention the satisfaction of your teeth meeting the firm crust and pillowy crumb of bread you made BY YOURSELF.

You can top your foccacia with any combination of flavors you like; I will only recommend that you use good quality stuff.  Pair the fresh bread with a big, green salad and bottle of wine.  Finish with a cheese course if you’re feeling decadent.

This week, I asked my students to write Six-Word Memoirs and their examples were so fascinating, so varied, so revealing of who-they-are that I posed the question to my Facebook friends, too.  Some of my favorite results:

cheer for many, fan of few.
outgoing is fine, I try outrageous.
drop-out, divorced, drug-addict, better now, thanks.
I shouldn’t have told you that.

As for mine, I wrote half-a-dozen, felt like I couldn’t settle on one, but in writing this post, I am sure of it now: In the kitchen, I am free.

What’s yours?

FOCCACIA
original recipe from Saveur.com

I can’t rightly call this recipe “adapted,” since all I’ve really done is alter the method & play with the toppings.  Though the original recipe calls for you to top the dough with olives and tomatoes before baking, I found that this resulted in charred and chewy toppings—unappetizing, to say the least.

My strategy to combat this is two-fold: mix heartier toppings (such as caramelized onions, olives, or chopped rosemary) into the dough, save more delicate toppings (flat-leaf parsley, sundried tomatoes, or Parmesan) for topping, either towards the end of baking time or once the foccacia’s already been removed from the oven.

Basic dough:

1 ¼ tsp. active dry yeast

2 tsp. sugar

3 ½ cups flour, more for kneading*

1 T + 1 tsp. kosher salt

extra-virgin olive oil

Coarse sea salt

Possible add-ins/toppings:

Caramelized or raw onions
Black or green olives
Parmesan or feta cheese
Fresh or sun-dried tomatoes
Fresh or dried herbs: rosemary, parsley, oregano

oven: 475˚
pan: cast-iron skillet, deep-dish pizza pan, or a shallow, enamel-glazed pot

Combine yeast, 1 teaspoon of sugar, & ¼ cup warm-but-not-hot water.  The official temperature requirements are between 110-115 degrees, and I recommend you use an instant-read thermometer if you haven’t made a lot of bread before.  After a few batches, though, you’ll get a feel for the right heat on your fingertips.

Let the yeast mixture sit about 10 minutes—it should be foamy.  If it’s not, toss it out and start again.  Whisk together the flour, remaining 1 tsp. sugar, & salt in a large bowl.  Make a well in the center and pour in the yeast mixture, 1 T olive oil, & 1 cup warm water.  Mix with your hands until it holds together.

On a floured counter or work surface, knead the dough until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.  Curve the dough into a ball & place it in the bottom of a well-olive-oiled bowl.  Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel & let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in size, ~90 minutes to 2 hours.

After the first rise, preheat the oven to 475˚.  If mixing in ingredients, now is the time to do it, working any additions into the dough.  Liberally rub the pan you’re using with (still more!) olive oil, then transfer the dough to the pan, flipping it over once so both sides are coated in oil.  Gently stretch the dough to fit to it to the bottom of the pan.  Cover the whole thing with a kitchen towel and let it rise another hour.

Use your fingertips to dimple the surface of the dough, then drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt.  Bake until golden brown and cooked through, approximately 30 minutes.  If the surface of the foccacia becomes too dark, cover with aluminum foil for the remainder of baking time.  Top as you wish, either during the last few minutes of baking or once the foccacia’s come out of the oven.  Cool slightly on a wire rack before serving.

*You can make your foccacia whole-wheat by swapping out one cup of the all-purpose flour for the whole-wheat variety.  It’s pretty good!…though I prefer the more sinful regular all-white-flour version.

Share/Save/Bookmark

MY MOM’S SHRIMP CREOLE

I don’t really know how my mom got to be such a badass cook.

{Facts about woman who brought me into the world—
She does not care for: goat cheese, the word “widow,” or folks who do not vote.
She is rather fond of: peanuts in all forms, the Allman Brothers song “Rambling Man,” & character-driven fiction.}

Like most Southern-women-who-can-make-anything-taste-good, she never had any formal training.  She can make thrifty one-pot or decadent dinners, improvise or plan something elaborate.  She has dishes for which she’s famous, the kind folks often request, she keeps a well-stocked pantry, bar, & wine rack, and of course, will insist that whatever item of hers you just ate which made you seriously think about licking your plate was “really no big deal.”

However, unlike many other Southern-women-who-cook-real-good, my mom isn’t actually from the South.  She was born in the mountainous and politically troubled region of Kashmir, India, and grew up in a household without a mother to learn from in the kitchen—though she did pay attention to the cooks her father employed.  When she and my father were newly married, my mom was suddenly responsible for all of the household cooking (and for an extremely fussy husband, I might add).

What I admire especially about my mom is that she never does anything halfway.  A new position at work means she’ll throw herself into graduate-level classes (even though she already has TWO masters degrees) to ensure she does the best possible job.  A trip to the wine store is always accompanied by a well-researched list and notes.

So in moving to a new continent and into myriad new food cultures, my indomitable mother took it all on.  She experimented until she could reproduce her and my father’s favorite dishes from home, inventing plenty of her own along the way.  But she also dove into learning America’s food culture—woman makes mean spaghetti & meatballs, squash casserole, and this shrimp creole.

Growing up, we ate this every New Year’s Day, so I’m actually running about a week late in posting it.  The bright side, though, is that while this dish is warm, homey, and comforting, it’s actually not so bad for you, so if you’re experiencing post-holiday-food-and-drink-consumption-guilt (I know I am), you can still fit this on your January meal plan.

Up until a few months ago, I had only ever eaten this dish over wild rice, and for good reason—it’s yummy that way.  But when I had some leftovers hanging out in my fridge and no wild rice in my pantry, inspiration struck.  I did have polenta, and topping it with this creole made for one of the best plays on shrimp & grits I’ve ever experienced.

My mom taught me pretty much everything I know about food, passing on her passion for collecting cookbooks, stocking the fridge with a million condiments, and clipping recipes for an ever-expanding file.  Though she makes fun of me now for going through “so much trouble” to try strange or elaborate dishes, she’s the one who once made her own pomegranate liquor, so I don’t think she has much room to talk.

Love you, Amma.  Lots & pots.

SHRIMP CREOLE

Like most dishes that originate from my mother’s kitchen, this one’s not fond of exact measurements.  I’ve done my best to accurately capture the method & flavor here, but this recipe is designed for tinkering.  Fiddle away—it’s still bound to taste good!

This concoction is best made ahead, and therefore is conducive to dinner guests.  Just be sure to reheat the sauce separate from the shrimp, adding them at the end so they don’t get rubbery.

1 ½ – 2 lb. shrimp, peeled & deveined
1/3 cup ketchup
2 T Worcestershire sauce
1 T garlic powder
1 tsp. (½ if you’re heat-shy) Tabasco sauce

Gently mix the above together.  Stash in a non-metal bowl in the refrigerator while you prep the vegetables or for up to two hours.

2 medium yellow onions
2 green bell peppers
4 ribs celery
— (fun fact: the above three items are considered “the trinity” of Cajun cooking, a riff on French cuisine’s mirepoix of onion, celery, & carrot)–
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 (14 oz.) cans fire-roasted tomatoes
1 small can diced tomatoes with green chiles
2-4 cups chicken or vegetable stock, for thinning*
1 tsp. oregano
olive oil
salt & pepper

Peel & dice the onions, seed & dice the peppers, trim the ends off of & dice the celery.  You want everything to be about the same size—I like ½ inch cubes.

In a heavy-bottomed soup pot or Dutch oven, pour in a generous swirl of olive oil and bring up to medium-high heat.  Cook the shrimp (in batches if necessary) until pink, just a few minutes on each side.  Remove shrimp to a bowl but don’t clean out the pot.

Toss in the onions and garlic first.  When they begin to sweat, add the bell peppers.  Celery comes last.  Once all of the vegetables have cooked, add the tomatoes & oregano.  Thin with your desired amount of stock and let simmer at least thirty minutes, but up to a few hours.

At this point, I like to taste the base and will probably toss in some extra Tabasco & Worcestershire sauce, plus salt if it’s needed and lots of pepper.  Once things are tasting dee-li-cious, add the shrimp and any accumulated juices back in.  Turn off the stove at this point–the creole should be hot enough to re-warm the shrimp without any added heat.

Serve over wild or white rice, polenta or grits, even pasta.

*I like my version of this dish to be quite chunky, while others prefer a thinner sauce.

Share/Save/Bookmark//

NICE TO SEE YOU, 2010

Welcome, 2010, I think I love you.

Symbolic and completely arbitrary as it may be, I am grateful for a New Year.  Myself, I like ritual.  I am a fan of tradition, keeping old ones and making up new ones.  I enjoy lists and assessments, taking stock and measuring up.  I appreciate the chance to simultaneously look back and look forward, with only my imagination and the truest version of myself.

Passage of time can give us pause, incline us toward regret or doubt, cause us to question choices or rethink past decisions. Sometimes we need to get our proverbial asses kicked.

Good as our lives may be, I suspect we’re often holding back.  Something we want to try, to create, to imagine or reinvent.  Someone we want to kiss.  A baby we’d like to have.  A degree, a business, a goodbye long overdue.  Forgiveness, for ourselves or another.  An ambition we’ve charted out in our minds but never out loud. (I’m speaking to myself here, in case you couldn’t tell.)

Look, I don’t know if you’re scared, but I know I am.  I can talk myself out of so many things, distracting myself with dishes that “need” to be washed, telling myself it will all happen “later,” cramming too many things into my schedule as a very clever way of assuring none of it will get done.

But I’m getting to the point where I think, either I do this thing already or I need to shut up about it.  And all of the plans I’ve made up to this point CLEARLY HAVEN’T WORKED, so I’m guessing some new strategies are in order.  It may get a little radical around here, and radical totally makes me nervous.

(Sharpen your knives, folks. We’re in for a big year.)

My manuscript has been “in progress” for the better part of the last three years.  I’ve devoted a part of two summers to the work of it and grabbed small snatches of time here and there during the school years that intercepted.  It’s been “nearly finished” for much too long now.

I started this blog in May 2009, having little to no idea what I was doing and unsure if anyone but my mom would read it.  Not only have I had a blast, I have made friends, gained readers, and surprised myself by managing to post twice a week, every week.  So there’s really no reason I can’t get this damn book written, except that I’m pretty sure I’m standing in my own way.

This blog will be a year old on May 5.  And what I can promise 2010 is, by that date, my book will also be finished.  So, Happy New Year’s, ya’ll.  If you’re interested in declaring something before God & internet, too, feel free to go for it in the comments.  The more butts in gear, the merrier.

As for food, I recommend you whip up a batch of Bloody Marys and be sure to eat some black-eyed peas for luck.  Some traditions are worth hanging onto, no doubt.  But the rest of it,  I think we have to make up as we go, even if we’re terrified the entire time.

Share/Save/Bookmark

|