Sometimes you do something you are really, truly, genuinely proud of. You want to do it, and then you do, and it turns out pretty much exactly as you had hoped. And then you are unabashedly (or probably a tiny bit abashed, because you’re not super-great at taking compliments, even from yourself ) proud.
For example: I had this idea for a pudding, a cold, creamy, almond-flavored pudding topped with bourbon-y cherries and whipped cream. I honestly have no idea where this idea came from, given that up until I made these, I have loathed, disdained, and completely eschewed puddings and all things pudding-esque in texture for my whole life. But during my bout with bronchitis at the end of the school year, I found myself dreaming about the foods I would cook when I felt like eating again, and this was one of them.
Now, a pudding might not seem much to get all self-congratulatory over, except for two things: one, it turned out exactly how I had imagined, the flavors, textures, and temperatures all combining for a rich but not heavy dessert. Two, the fact that these puddings turned out is for me a sign that I’ve reached a goal.
There are things I have wanted to do, very badly, without really knowing how to do them, or if I would be capable of doing them when it came right down to it. I’m certain that you, reading this, know what I mean, though I don’t know what those things might have been for you.
Some of my goals have been more intense (deliver the eulogy at my father’s funeral in a way that would dignify him, care-take Jill without making her cancer about me) than others (shave my head just to see what it would be like, become the kind of person people refer to as “refreshingly honest”). Some I’ve yet to accomplish (publish a book, become fluent in Hindi).
But one constant goal, somewhere on the middle of the spectrum between serious and silly, has been to improve my cooking skills. Early in my cooking career, I set my sights on the idea of being someone who can take whatever was in the house and throw together dinner; I do that regularly now, with fun and ease. I am a much more efficient cook (and a much more efficient cleaner of the messes I make, something I know Jill appreciates)—I have a repertoire of dishes, but I also feel confident enough to improvise, something that would have terrified me a few years ago.
Recently, I have been focusing on the idea of flavor combinations and expanding my knowledge of ingredients and techniques. I want to be able to build a dish in my mind, imagining the component parts and steps that will be necessary, and then build that dish in my kitchen, perhaps with some trial and error, but ultimately have it turn out. So that’s why I’m so excited about this damn pudding.
I still have a long, long way to go—so much I do not know about food, or what to do with it. My butchering skills need work, and I’m a total stranger to the grill. But I hope, in time and with practice, I’ll be able to one day say—“I wanted to do that, and now I have.”
ALMOND PUDDINGS WITH BOURBON CHERRIES & WHIPPED CREAM
Please note: the puddings need to chill for about four hours before you can eat them. I know, I know, I know, but it’s worth the wait. Plan accordingly!
You could also keep them overnight, and maybe longer than that, but in my house, they did not last.
for the puddings:
½ cup almonds
2/3 cup sugar, divided
2 T water
2 cups whole milk
2 egg yolks
2 T cornstarch
2 T unsalted butter
2 tsp. almond extract
1 tsp. vanilla extract
special equipment: 6 ramekins (you could also use mugs or small glass bowls)
Grind the almonds and half the sugar (1/3 cup) until the nuts resemble wet sand. Add the water and blend until mostly smooth. Turn the almond paste into a medium-sized, thick-bottomed saucepan and add the milk. Whisk together and heat the mixture over medium heat until hot to the touch.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the remaining sugar, egg yolks, cornstarch, & salt until it’s smooth. Pour in half of the hot milk mixture, whisking to combine. Add the remaining half of the hot milk to the egg yolk bowl, whisking until completely incorporated.
Pour the whole thing back into the saucepan, and heat again over medium until it’s thick and bubbling. Stir constantly with a whisk or spatula. Boil for just a minute, until the mixture has thickened to a gloppy consistency. (I know that sounds gross, but it’s going to be very tasty, don’t worry).
Remove the saucepan from the stove and stir in the butter and extracts until the butter has completely melted. At this point, I passed the pudding mixture through a mesh sieve before spooning it into the ramekins; I wanted a smooth texture, but you might not.
Cover the ramekins with plastic wrap, making sure the plastic touches the pudding directly, preventing it from forming a thick skin. Refrigerate until cold and set, about 4-5 hours.
for the bourbon cherries:
a dozen sweet red cherries, pitted & halved
3 T butter
2 T brown sugar
bourbon! (yes, it deserves an exclamation mark)
Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium low until it’s foamy. Add the cherries and sauté until they become soft and a bit darker in color. Stir in the brown sugar, letting it caramelize a bit before deglazing the pan with a generous hit of bourbon. Turn the heat to low and let everything cook together for a few minutes, at which point you should have boozy cherries and a simple, burgundy-colored sauce.
Mound some homemade whipped cream over each pudding. Top with a few bourbon cherries and, if you like, some chopped, toasted almonds.
In some alternate world in my mind, I am going to be making these meat-filled pies for my dad. He’ll sneak into the kitchen after his afternoon nap, grabbing a pie before he’s really supposed to, consuming it while it is still impossibly hot, and grin in that way I hope I will never, ever forget.
This week, I was given the opportunity to write a Father’s Day post for Desi Living, a Houston-based blog dedicated to exploring the Indian-American experience. It was, as it always is, powerfully difficult but tremendously rewarding to write about my dad. Between that piece and the first longer essay published here on the blog, it’s been quite a week for sharing writing; it feels so good, in no small part thanks to enthusiastic responses from so many of you.
And while I wish so badly that I could celebrate with my own father today, I have to say there is no shortage of incredible men in my life: some who have eagerly and chivalrously served as my surrogate fathers, many whom I admire tremendously for being thoughtful and dedicated in their parenting, a handful who are about to become dads for the first time!, and a group that we are counting on to serve as father figures for the child we hope to bring into our life soon.
I know not everyone has a rosy relationship with their own dad, but I hope that everyone can think of at least one man they know who is a father or father-figure worthy of acknowledgment. Call him up, and tell him so. Happy Father’s Day out there!
THE FOOD OF MY PEOPLE: KEEMA
If you, like me, are always looking for something new to do with ground beef—voila. The flavors in keema are fantastic and addictive; if you like, you can add some frozen peas at the end of the cooking process for a traditional take.
What to do with your keema once you’ve made it? Well, you can fold it into scrambled eggs, serve it with naan or rice, spoon it on top of baked potatoes, combine it with wanton wrappers and fry some samosas, or make meat pies like I did.
I used this Rose Levy Beranbaum recipe for pie crust, subbing in half whole wheat flour for added heft. I rolled the dough out ¼” thick, cut it into rectangles, filling one with keema, then topping it with a corresponding dough piece. A crimp along the edge with a fork, a brush with egg wash, and a decorative studding with sunflower seeds, then 15-20 minutes in a 400 degree oven.
Admittedly, Beranbaum’s recipe is pretty fussy, but if it does yield fantastically flaky pastry. If you’re not up for the trouble, you might try this empanada dough or (shh, I won’t tell!) use pre-made pie or pizza dough.
Last but not least, if you’d like some chutneys to go with your meat pies, I’ve got a couple of recipes for you (one for cilantro chutney, the other for tamarind) over here.
1 lb. ground beef or lamb
1 medium onion (red or yellow), diced
2 T ginger, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup tomato sauce
1 ½ tsp. garam masala
1 tsp. whole cumin
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. cayenne, if you want some heat
Heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed pan. Once the oil is shimmery, add the cumin seeds and listen for the hiss that means they’re cracking. Toss in the pinch of turmeric, then the onion, ginger, & garlic. Turn the heat down a bit to medium-low and sauté until translucent.
Add the ground beef and break up large clumps with the back of a big spoon or spatula. Up the heat to medium-high and cook until the meat browns, no traces of pink remaining, stirring occasionally. Stir in the ground spices and turn the heat down to low. Add the tomato sauce and stir, cooking until the sauce is completely incorporated into the meat mixture and looks “dry.”
Remove from heat and garnish with chopped cilantro.
For a while now, I’ve been tossing around the idea of publishing longer pieces of my own writing here on the blog–essays that I’ve written, essays that I’d like to write, essays that now only exist in fragment form. When I finally spoke this idea aloud last week to a group of friends, their enthusiastic reception convinced me to go ahead and do it.
I’ve set up a separate page for essays, linked to from the header, so you can find them at any time. My plan is to publish something every four to six weeks, giving me deadlines and a structure, and hopefully giving you engaging, thoughtful pieces to read, if you so choose.
While some of my essays have food as their focus, this one does not. It’s a long piece I started long ago, about my hometown, and my complicated relationship to it. You can find the first essay, entitled “Mixed,” here, and I truly hope you will enjoy it. Your readership and feedback are most welcome and appreciated!
Back with a much-overdue recipe post very soon,
(for the beautiful photo of downtown Memphis, credit belongs to Chris Weiland)
Within forty-eight hours of me tossing out the idea of guest blogging to my friend Marynelle, she had sent me her first post That’s just the kind of woman she is—capable, generous, incredibly witty and wicked smart. She’s been my friend for a l-o-n-g time and I am thrilled to have her blogging for me this week!
Not only is her writing voice fantastic, this pork chop recipe is, too. For the photographs, you’ll see that I use boneless pork cutlets, which are thinner than chops, but the taste was still delicious. As a side, I cooked some Farmers’ Market chard, adapting this recipe from Sprouted Kitchen.
There Will Be Other Pork Chops
I’ll be straight with you up front—I have no culinary credentials. I am the Novice of Beginners. My favorite thing to make is dip, because the preparation generally involves only chopping and stirring, thus evading the “applying heat” step of cooking that could result in undercooking (AKA salmonella) or overcooking (AKA burning down the house). While Nishta ending up with her own Food Network show is a colorable possibility, my doing so is not. Not least because I can’t chop fast enough.
Now that I’ve been sufficiently self-deprecating, you’re probably wondering what exactly I’m doing here. It’s like a headline from The Onion: Ivy-League-educated lawyer manages to cook herself a pork chop without setting off smoke alarm. So what? How does this earn me a guest blogger spot on an award-nominated food blog? The point is that I have started to cook. Regularly. And my food usually tastes good. I’m here to give a nudge to those of you who are, like me, at the preschool stage of cooking and might like a little hand-holding.
I have the worst personality type for cooking: I’m a Type-A perfectionist who is a stickler for precision and has logged far too many hours watching cooking shows. This means that I attempt to following recipes to the letter, even if I have to make three trips to the grocery store (substitutions are scary) and measure things like how much parsley I’ve chopped. I want all pieces of my diced onion to be exactly the same size. I want to know precisely how many minutes I should sauté the onion.
I had lots of other reasons for not cooking. It’s a pain in the ass to cook for one person. The leftover ingredients go bad and then I have to throw them away, which is a waste of money. There’s not enough room in the refrigerator because I have three roommates. My kitchen tools are cheap. I’m in law school. I’m never home. I don’t have time.
But it was really about the perfectionist thing. I get frustrated when my version doesn’t look like the one on TV. I do not like it when I am not innately good at something. What if it doesn’t taste amazing the very first time I make it? Well, clearly, I have failed as a human being and should be smitten from the earth.
I decided a few months ago that cooking for myself was within my grasp. I mean, I graduated from law school with honors. I passed the bar exam. I should be able to cook a pork chop. All those reasons I had for not cooking started to resolve themselves. I finished law school, I no longer spend weekends at my now-ex-boyfriend’s place (where preparing anything other than pasta and scrambled eggs required considerable effort and big trip to the grocery store), and I work from home. I buy staple ingredients and basic proteins and then figure out what to do with them, rather than buying stuff to make one particular recipe. (Recipes from Blue Jean Gourmet are exceptions.) I cook for my roommates instead of just for me, which creates the added bonuses of dinner-table company and confidence-boosting compliments as well as constructive feedback. (For the record, we’ve had no problems with salmonella to date, and the house is still standing tall.) And since I spend many, many hours a day staring at a computer screen, the TV screen is a lot less appealing than it used to be. Doing something with my hands while singing along to Bruce Springsteen is more fun.
But what if I didn’t chop the parsley fine enough? What if I put too much oil in the pan? What if it doesn’t taste amazing? Most of the time, it still tastes pretty good. And if not—there will be other pork chops.
PANKO-CRUSTED PORK CHOPS
This recipe comes from the Whole Foods Market website, the result of intrepid Googling. I generally figure out what to do with my proteins by running a search on Tastespotting, Food 52, Epicurious, etc. and look for a recipe that consists primarily of ingredients I already have and looks relatively simple. “Relatively simple” for me usually translates to (1) chopping (2) mixing/stirring, and (3) cooking in one pan or dish, either on the stovetop or in the oven. Also, don’t be embarrassed to measure, even though you know the amount doesn’t have to be precise.
You’ve got to learn what half a cup looks like somehow.
1/3 cup flour
Salt & pepper to taste (for me, about ½ tsp. salt & ¼ tsp. pepper)
2 T Dijon mustard
1 T honey
1 T water
¾ cup Panko bread crumbs
2 T finely chopped parsley (or 1 tsp. dried parsley)
1 T fresh thyme, chopped (or ¾ tsp. dried thyme)
[Note: 1½ tsp. herbes de provence would work too]
4 boneless pork chops
2-3 T canola oil (enough to cover the bottom of a large skillet)
Combine flour, salt, and pepper on a plate. Combine mustard, honey, and water in a bowl – you’ll be dipping the pork chops in it, so add a little extra water if it seems thick. Combine bread crumbs and herbs on a plate. Line the plates up in that order—flour, mustard, breadcrumbs—and put an empty plate at the end for the breaded chops.
Dredge pork chops in seasoned flour to coat, then shake off excess. Dip pork chops in mustard and drain excess. Dredge chops in breadcrumb mixture, making sure they are coated evenly on all sides.
Preheat a skillet large enough to fit all four pork chops. (I don’t use nonstick for this, partly because it doesn’t brown as well and partly because my nonstick skillets are too small.) Heat the oil in the skillet over medium-high heat, about 1-2 minutes. Cook pork chops 6 minutes per side. If the coating starts to look a little dark, lower the heat to medium.
This side dish originally calls for a topping of breadcrumbs, but given that I was serving them with crumb-crusted pork, I opted out. I also substituted buttermilk for half-and-half, because that’s what I had on hand, and I really liked the tang that it brought to the greens. Just be sure to keep the heat very low so you don’t curdle the liquid.
1 bunch Swiss chard, leaves rinsed & rough-chopped (save the stems for pickling!)
1 ½ T Dijon mustard (or any spicy, whole-grain mustard)
¼ cup buttermilk or half & half
salt & pepper
Wilt the chard in a large skillet, using a bit of water and a lid. As soon as the chard has wilted down, remove the lid and cook off any remaining water. Turn the heat down to low and add Dijon mustard and buttermilk/half & half. Stir and cook everything together just a few minutes to thicken. Remove from the heat, season with salt & pepper, and serve.
Marynelle Wilson was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, where she and Nishta attended the same high school, took in midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and devoured many pints of Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream. A graduate of Columbia University and American University’s School of Law, she works as an Intellectual Property attorney in the District of Columbia.