Today makes five years without my father, a number that seems at once impossibly long and then, not long enough.
In keeping with my original plan, I have posted a new essay today, instead of a recipe. Given the nature of today’s date, I chose a piece about my father’s death. The essay is called “Sonata” and you can find it here. (You can also click directly to the essay page from the blog’s masthead.)
Many thanks to those of you who took the time to read and offer feedback on the last essay; I am very grateful to have such a generous and encouraging audience.
PS–This picture is of my parents in India, five summers ago, in their socks at the Taj Mahal. Aren’t they the cutest?
N.B.–I’ll be continuing the “absolutely nothing to do with food” portion of the blog by posting a second essay on Friday. Hope you’ll come back then to take a look! In the meantime, food.
I love books, viscerally, powerfully. I love their physical presence on the bookshelves in our house (they are the one material good I never feel guilty buying), I love their smell, their heft, their deckled edges. I love to sit in a favorite chair and read, for hours, unaware of the time that has passed. I love the feeling of being inside the world of a book, so suspended and captivated that you mourn the loss of it when you are done, daydream about characters for days afterward.
There are texts that feel, to me, like old friends—some I have to keep myself from re-reading over and over, just to delay the gratification I know will come when I finally give in. Some are so tangibly connected to a certain point in my life that I feel grateful to have them as witnesses. Books have taught me as much or more as anything else; they rescued me as a socially awkward middle school girl, and then again as a wistful high schooler with no romantic prospects of her own, and yet again as a young woman grieving the loss of her father. I guess it’s no surprise that I became an English teacher, where I have the privilege of watching students “click” with a book, its magic and power and relevance becoming real to them.
I go through phases with my personal reading—lots of plays, followed by lots of memoir, followed by lot of young adult novels, then lots of poems, with a detour into historical fiction. At the moment, Jill and I are relishing audio books. We started with Faulkner’s A Light in August as a way to pass time on our summer road trip, and because it seemed fitting to have his words bookend our trip to Oxford, Mississippi, his hometown. But it’s been weeks since we finished that novel and started another, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and I think we’re hooked. We find ourselves listening all during the day: whenever we are driving somewhere together, when one of us is cooking dinner, when the other one of us is cleaning up kitchen, and even staying up until midnight some nights because neither of us could bear to stop.
I’m still entranced by paper books, too, and my summer reading pile, though cut down quite a bit, remains stacked with (more) Faulkner, Ondaatje’s The English Patient, which I’ve somehow managed to have never read, Alice Munro’s most recent short stories, and The Unwritten, recommended by a friend, which I suspect may start me on a serious comic book phase.
My mother, voracious reader in her own right, once told me, “If you love to read, you’ll never be bored.” As kids in India, she and her brother used to beg reading material from their neighbors: old books, newspapers, the backs of food cartons, anything. What we gain when we read is a pleasure and a knowledge no one can ever take away from us.
I suspect many of you out there are book nerds like me. What are you reading this summer?
ALOO TIKKI (potato cakes)
These little guys are absurdly easy to make, but never fail to impress. They work well as an appetizer, because you can make the cakes smaller, cook them ahead of time, and keep them warm in a low oven. You can also make larger tikki and serve them with a green salad for lunch. If you’re looking to add some protein, you can top the cakes with some keema.
The chutneys seen here are homemade, tamarind and cilantro. You can buy jarred versions, of course, but both are quite simple to make on your own—it’s just a matter of picking up the right ingredients. Bonus points for these chutneys? You can freeze any extra for your future enjoyment.
2 lb. red potatoes, scrubbed
½ cup diced red onion
¼ cup chopped cilantro
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. salt (more to taste)
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
vegetable oil, for the pan
optional— ½ cup cooked channa dal or ½ cup corn kernels
Boil the potatoes until they are very tender. Pour into a colander, rinse with cold water and leave until they are cool enough to peel. Peel, then mash with your hands, breaking up any clumps of potato.
Add the remaining ingredients and hand-mix to combine. Use your hands to form patties by pressing together the mixture with your palms. The cakes will be a bit delicate, but they will firm up when you cook them. If you’re having trouble making the tikki, squeeze in a little lemon or lime juice to bring the mixture together.
Heat the vegetable oil over medium in a nonstick (very important!) skillet or cast-iron pan. Once the oil is quite warm, place two to three tikki in the pan, being careful not to crowd. Cook for 3-4 minutes until brown on each side, using a flexible spatula to flip. Serve immediately with chutneys, or keep warm until ready to eat.
My mom is a gardener. More precisely put, she is a crazy gardening lady. You know the type—goes to get the mail and ends up pulling weeds for hours, wakes up while it’s still dark outside in order to water her plants, stops the car at the sight of a coveted flower growing in the median: she’s been known to dig things up right then and there.
The front and back of the house I grew up are lushly blanketed with greenery and flowers; all landscaped by my mom, with minimal help from outside sources. As a kid, I learned to identify plants by name: lantana, coleus, begonia, clematis. She taught me to pull a weed by the roots and put me to work raking leaves in the side yard. On Saturdays when she had been working outside since morning, my father would conscript me to push the screen door into the gathering dark and cajole her to “Come inside!” at last. Those nights, she’d drink a beer, paper napkin layered between her hand and the cold bottle, sending her off to an early bedtime.
Jill is also a gardener, the instinctive kind. She grew up, as you can read here, tending huge vegetable beds under the supervision of her parents, and continues that tradition by planting in our backyard every season. At the moment, okra, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, & a cousin of black-eyed peas are making their way to our kitchen table, thanks to her care.
There is a common language spoken by gardeners, an understanding and relatedness that trumps differences. The joy that rain can bring. The efficiency and power of compost. Vitriol toward those blasted enemies, squirrels and rabbits and deer. Though I have been around gardening all of my life, and can fudge enough to get by, I’m still not part of the club. Gardening doesn’t make sense to me the way it does to my mom or Jill, or one of the many other crazy gardening ladies in my life (my mother-in-law, my Shaila Aunty, my friend Sharon).
I think the gardener gene accounts for not a small part of what allowed my mom and Jill to bond as tightly as they have. They can tromp around the yard together, troubleshooting, admiring, inquiring, and understand each other perfectly. They can spend a whole day constructing a backyard fountain using nothing but bricks, an old aquarium, and a decorative vase (as they did a few years ago). Jill has even inspired my mom to dabble a bit in planted vegetables, something she rarely did when I was a kid; this summer, my mom’s garden yielded her first tomatoes, sweet and red and more satisfying than any store-bought specimen ever could be.
That’s where I come in, see—I may not be the one to grow ‘em, but I sure know how to treat home-grown tomatoes right.
summer tomatoes, previously:
SHRIMP, POTATO, & TOMATO SALAD
adapted from Food & Wine
When I first made this recipe, I was disappointed; it looked beautiful but tasted boring. After a little doctoring (some lemon juice, more olive oil, more salt) and a little resting, the flavors came together into an understated, satisfying dish.
We are lucky to live close to the Gulf and therefore have access to beautiful, wild-caught, never-frozen shrimp. If you can use the same, I highly recommend them; their sweet flavor does wonderful things with the basil and red onion in this salad. Last but not least, don’t be afraid to use what may seem like an obscene amount of olive oil—it, along with generous grinds of black pepper and coarse salt, makes the dish come together.
1 lb. large shrimp, peeled & deveined
1 ¾ lb. unpeeled potatoes*
1 lb. tomatoes of your choice, quartered if small, diced if large
1 small red onion, thinly sliced into rings
¼ cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup dry white wine
juice of 1 lemon
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
large bunch fresh basil, leaves cut into a chiffonade
generous amounts of salt & freshly-ground pepper
Boil potatoes in a medium pot of salted water until fork-tender. Drain and let cool slightly.
Rinse the sliced onion in cold water briefly before tossing with the vinegar in a large bowl. Quarter or cube the potatoes, then drizzle with white wine. Add them to the vinegared onions and season with salt and pepper, tossing gently to combine. Add the shrimp, tomatoes, and olive oil to the potato mixture and let sit for at least 5, but up to 20 minutes while you prep and cook the shrimp.
Cook the shrimp in a skillet coated with olive oil, tossing frequently until they become pink, ~5-7 minutes, depending on their size. Remove from heat as soon as they are cooked through, to prevent them from becoming rubbery.
Add the shrimp to the potato salad, toss the mixture carefully, and top with basil. Taste to check seasonings before serving.
*the original recipe called for russets, but I feared they would disintegrate, so I used baby red potatoes and thought their creamy texture worked well.
I don’t usually plan for them to, but my summers often end up having themes.
There was the Tennessee Williams summer, which followed my sophomore year of high school. I had become fixated on him in my American lit class when we read his The Glass Menagerie; I spent the summer reading everything else he had ever written.
Then there was the summer I truly fell in love with cooking, the summer of 2006, when I filled my parents’ and my friends’ kitchens with all kinds of dinner experiments. Another summer, my mom and I tackled a list of classic films—The Sting, Cinema Paradiso, Lawrence of Arabia—the latter of which she still harangues me for forcing her to watch ALL of.
I’m not sure yet what the Summer of 2011 will go down as. There’s been a lot of reading, a fair amount of writing, plus lots of list-making, planning, organizing (like putting every. single. one. of my Chrome bookmarks into a folder), budgeting, researching, and scheming. Shall we call it the Summer of Getting My Shit Together?
But there has also been precious time with beloved friends and family, time together just the two of us, pausing in so many moments to be grateful that we are hanging out at home and not in the hospital. Time to look ahead and be excited about the future. Time to make smoothies and write letters and sit on the swing in the backyard. Time to prioritize and pare down and focus in.
A time for every purpose, indeed.
FAVA BEAN PANZANELLA
from the Tartine Bread cookbook
I used to be scared of fava beans. This can be blamed, of course, on the summer I fell in love with Jodie Foster, watched every movie she’d ever made, and then spent sleepless nights terrified that Hannibal Lector was going to come after me and eat my liver with fava beans & a nice Chianti.
Nothing scary about this bread salad, though. It’s satisfying and comes together easily, the most time-consuming part being shelling the beans themselves. The dressing is so bright and lovely that I’ve used it to dress other summer salads since.
Finally, the pictures here show the salad made according to the original recipe, we did toss in some lovely heirloom tomatoes after, and enjoyed the addition.
2 ½ lb fresh fava beans, shelled (about 1 cup of beans)
half a red onion, thinly sliced
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1-2 cups bread croutons*
a handful of fresh mint, torn into pieces
grated zest & juice of 1 lemon
½ tsp. sugar
½ cup olive oil
Place the slices of onion in a bowl and pour the vinegar over them. Let stand for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The onions will soften slightly and take on a pink hue.
Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to a boil. Fill a bowl with ice water and place near the stove. Add the fava beans to the boiling water and cook for 1 minute. Drain and transfer to the ice water to cook. Peel the opaque outer layer from each bean.
In a serving bowl, combine beans, croutons, and basil. Remove onions from vinegar and add to the bowl as well
Make the vinaigrette. In a small bowl, stir together the lemon zest and juice, sugar and olive oil until combined well. Season to taste with salt. Pour vinaigrette over the salad and toss. Let sit for about a minute before serving to allow the croutons to absorb some of the vinaigrette.
*for the croutons—
3 to 5 slices day-old bread, sliced 1-inch thick & torn into 1½ inch chunks
2-3 T olive oil
½ tsp. herbes de Provence (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400°. Toss the torn bread with olive oil and a pinch of salt. If you are using the herbs, add them too. Spread the bread evenly on a baking sheet and bake until golden brown and crisp, about 15 minutes. Midway through baking time, redistribute the croutons if they are coloring unevenly.
1) So, I won an award yesterday. Many thanks to the Houston Press & Houston Web Awards for naming Blue Jean Gourmet the Best Food Blog in town; there’s a large, talented roster to choose from, and I am truly honored!
2) My mom’s birthday is tomorrow, and she’ll be here in Houston so we can celebrate it with her. She’s one of the most independent, opinionated, and determined people I know, and I love her so freaking much.
3) NPR’S Kitchen Window featured a wonderful piece about the diversity of foods being grilled across the nation this week—from Korean kalbi to Indian tandoori salmon—and the way that culinary diversity reflects the very greatness and strength of America, which the Fourth of July is designed to celebrate.
My memories of backyard Fourth of July cookouts growing up seem “all-American” on the surface—beer, grill, family time outdoors with bug spray—but when you look closer, there’s Hindi music blasting through the speakers and chili-pepper-butter on the corn on the cob. For many of us, I suspect it was, or is becoming this way, and I think that is a very good thing, indeed.
4) Below I have culled some recipes from past posts–foods that I think would be right at home among the cookouts and potlucks of the upcoming long weekend, featuring some of the summer’s best produce.
Whatever you’re up to this Fourth of July, please be safe, enjoy yourselves, & eat well as we Americans celebrate our great country!
*designates no-cook items (i.e., you don’t have to turn on the stove, oven, or grill!)