ESSAY POST: STRAIGHT DEFINITION

Hello, friends.  This post is long overdue–I haven’t added a new essay to the blog since November 2011–yikes!

Please forgive my delay and accept my thanks, as always, for being willing to read my work.  I am so blessed to have such a wonderful audience, and I do not take your time or comments for granted.

This one’s is long, and it’s about my dad (of course), my hair, and not being a straight girl.  You can find it linked here, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Yours,

Nishta

(the above photo was taken by Jill during our visit to Oregon last fall)

Share/Save/Bookmark

RAPINI WITH CHICKPEAS & RICOTTA

Ash Wednesday marks the start of the Lenten season, which lasts until Easter Sunday.  For Catholics, Episcopalians, and some other Christians (or non-Christians, as the case is with me!), Lent is a time for reflection and, traditionally, ritual fasting.

There are as many interpretations of what it means or what it should mean to “give something up” for Lent, so I can’t speak for everyone who observes the ritual.  But I have been a little put off by all of the Lent-bashing I’ve seen on Twitter and Facebook today.  Joking is one thing (“I’m giving up giving up things for Lent!” and the like), but why the need to disparage someone else’s tradition?  Just because you have no interest in observing Lent, or don’t see the value in observing it doesn’t mean that there IS no potential value.

My Lenten observance is not an attempt to correct some kind of behavior I find fault in myself, or to punish myself.  For me, Lent is an opportunity to be more thoughtful, more deliberate, and yes, a bit more disciplined.  When did “discipline” get to be such a dirty word?  I am lucky to have the freedom of so much choice, but I want my life to be a balance between what I feel like doing and the sometimes-tough choices that line up with my priorities.  And let’s be honest; that kind of balance does not magically happen without some work.

This year, I am going without desserts and red meat for the next forty days.  There is nothing inherently evil with either of these two categories, and I didn’t make this choice as part of a plan to lose weight, or because I feel there’s something wrong with the way I eat now.  Mostly, I feel like Jill and I sometimes get caught in “food ruts,” falling back on familiar recipes instead of trying new things.  I’m excited to have a structure that will force me to cook more fish and buy lots of different vegetables at the store.  I’m also looking to break my habit of filling up on sweets, just to be hungry again a short time later I know that a few weeks without desserts will remind my palate just how sweet a handful of blueberries can be.

Re-set and recalibrate—there are lots of ways to do it, and Lent happens to be one of mine.

RAPINI WITH CHICKPEAS & RICOTTA
recipe adapted from Whole Living

Rapini, or broccoli rabe, is one of those vegetables I’d like to cook with more often.  Related to kale and cauliflower, rapini is a flash to prep since all but the tough bottom stems are edible.  Here it’s cooked quickly under the broiler, but you can also blanch it, roast it in the oven, steam, or sauté it.  Personally, I plan to try this broccoli rabe pizza recipe next.

We served this dish as a salad course at a dinner party for four, and then made it again tonight as a main course for just the two of us.  Be warned: it’s still a bit bitter and chewy after the trip under the broiler, but I happen to love the taste of slightly-bitter greens and prefer most things al dente.  If you’re worried, simply employ another cooking method for the rapini, then assemble the salad as directed.

ingredients:

1 bunch rapini
1 can chickpeas, drained*
2-3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 cup fresh ricotta
juice of 1 lemon, preferably Meyer
Aleppo pepper or red pepper flakes
olive oil
salt

First, roast the chickpeas, which you can do ahead of time.  For this recipe, I used Aleppo pepper to season the chickpeas, but you can also keep them plain, using salt and olive oil only.

While the chickpeas are roasting, prep the rapini, rinsing it well and trimming the stem ends.  Dry the stalks well, then arrange on two cookie sheets and drizzle generously with olive oil.  Use your fingers to ensure that the rapini is well-coated with oil.  Spread the stalks out so they don’t crowd.

Sprinkle the chopped garlic and some salt atop the two cookie sheets.  Once your chickpeas are done, turn the oven to the broiler setting and slide the rapini in (I recommend positioning your oven rack a few notches below the broiler).

Broil for two to three minutes, then flip the rapini with tongs and cook another two minutes.  Remove from the oven and spread onto a large platter, dressing with the lemon juice, more olive oil, and some dashes of Aleppo pepper or red pepper flakes.  Salt to taste before distributing the chickpeas on the platter, and topping everything with a generous mound of ricotta.

Share/Save/Bookmark

VANILLA BEAN PANNA COTTA

The first time I met Jill, she thought I was a Buddhist nun.  I was nineteen years old and my hair was buzzed very, very short; part of a why-the-hell-not, let’s-see-what-it’s-like experiment undertaken by my roommate Rebecca and I.  Since it was a religion class that I walked into that day, you can understand why Jill assumed what she did—the rest of the campus assumed that Rebecca and I were girlfriends and/or militant, man-hating feminists, but neither of those things were true.

I don’t believe in love at first sight (don’t people really mean lust, anyway?) but I do remember what Jill was wearing that first day, and I remember sitting enraptured for forty-five minutes when I heard her lecture for the first time.  I remember knowing, without really knowing how I knew, that I wanted this person to be in my life, in a big way, forever.

It is a tremendous gift, love.  To love another and have that love returned.  I take it for granted, get caught up in big and little details, worries, and ambitions, as if other things matter more than loving the people in my life—as unselfishly and joyfully as possible, growing in my capacity to give and receive love.

I have been blessed in many, many ways, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Jill is the absolute best thing that ever happened to me.  She’s my best friend and my Valentine, and she endorses this dessert.

VANILLA BEAN PANNA COTTA
makes 6-8, depending on the size of the molds/cups you use

Panna Cotta is probably one of the simplest and most adaptable dessert recipes out there; I used vanilla bean because it’s Jill’s favorite flavoring, but you could easily swap in other flavors, like coffee or citrus.  This Panna Cotta recipe does not call for much sugar (again, Jill’s preference is for barely-sweet desserts), so feel free to bump up the sugar to 1/3 or even ½ cup, if you so desire.

I served our Panna Cotta as the coda to an early-Valentine’s-Day-at-home, steak-and-champagne dinner, pairing the dessert with some strawberries steeped in David Lebovitz’s red wine sauce: dead simple to make and pairs perfectly with the creamy dessert.  You could also serve the Panna Cotta more simply, with almost any fruit of your choice; berries tossed with some Grand Marnier and sugar would be quite nice.

ingredients:

2 cups heavy cream
¼ cup sugar
half of a vanilla bean*
1 packet powdered gelatin
3 T cold water

Pour the cream and sugar into a heavy-bottomed saucepan.  Split the vanilla bean with a sharp knife, scraping the seeds into the pan.  Heat the cream, stirring until the sugar is dissolved.  Remove the saucepan from heat, cover, and leave to steep for at least 30 minutes.

In the meantime, pour a bit of neutral oil, like canola, onto a paper towel and lightly coat the inside of whatever containers you plan to use—I used ramekins, but coffee cups or small bowls would work just as well.

In a separate bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water; let it sit for 5-10 minutes.  Re-warm the cream, then pour the very warm mixture over the gelatin and stir until dissolved.

Pour the Panna Cotta into the cups, dividing equally.  Chill until firm, 2-4 hours.  When ready to serve, run a knife along the inside of each cup (I also use a small spoon to help with loosening).  Invert each Panna Cotta onto a plate, and garnish as desired.

*You can substitute 1 tsp. of vanilla extract, but you won’t get the same intense vanilla flavor or the specks of vanilla seeds floating on top.

Share/Save/Bookmark

POHA

One of the coolest things about teaching is the way that the lessons I teach are often just as applicable to me as they are to my students. And in listening to and discussing with my kids, I’m made to think about and consider things more deeply, to decide what I think, and to figure out how to substantiate my claims—all of the very things I’m trying to teach them to do. Related side note: you know how dogs can smell fear? Teenagers can smell hypocrisy.

The unit we are wrapping up has grown out of a study of the graphic novel American Born Chinese, a visually beautiful but ambiguously messaged story about three intersecting characters who each examine issues of belonging, stereotypes, assimilation, and acceptance. Many of my students quickly caught on to some of the mixed messages in the book, and so I took it as an opportunity for us to examine the thoughts of other writers on the topic of identity: Amy Tan, Eric Liu, Claude Steele, Z.Z. Packer, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

I’ve spent lots of time thinking and writing about what it was like to grow up as the first-generation daughter of Indian immigrants in Memphis, Tennessee, but it is another thing entirely to think about one’s identity in the context of a classroom full of students, many of whom were considering the topic for the first time.

How much “Indian” am I, and by virtue of what? I feel fully American, and am legally American, but what does that mean? Does our notion of what it means to BE American still need updating? What comes with having a hyphenated identity?

This quote from Jhumpa Lahiri, short-story writing goddess and fellow Indian-American, resonated with me: “As a child I sought perfection and so denied myself the claim to any identity. As an adult I accept that a bicultural upbringing is a rich but imperfect thing.”

In as much as our identities are created, fluid, and malleable, I am still figuring out what it means to be me, what I want it to mean, what that meaning looks like. In my further-hyphenated family (Jill is Caucasian American, mostly Irish if you go far back enough), food plays a big part in anchoring the “Indian” part of my identity into our life.

POHA

You’ll need to visit the Indian grocery store for this one: fresh curry leaves (which really give this dish its distinctive flavor) and poha (flattened, de-husked, and dried rice) are hard to find elsewhere. Luckily, both will keep very well in your fridge—the leaves, wrapped in a paper towel and sealed in a Ziploc bag, and the poha in an airtight container or well-sealed in its original packaging.

This dish is typically served for breakfast, but it works just as well for lunch or dinner. Jill has become a big fan (thanks to my mom, who got us hooked on visits to our house before I started making it myself!), and I really love that.

ingredients:

3 cups thick poha
2 cups peeled, chopped, raw, firm-fleshed potatoes (red or Yukon Gold work well)
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1 tsp. cumin seeds
½ tsp. turmeric
1 T sugar
1 T chopped, fresh curry leaves
½ cup finely-chopped yellow onion
¼ cup finely chopped ginger (less if you prefer)
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. ground coriander
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper, more if you are feeling brave
half a bag of frozen peas
canola oil

optional: some minced Serrano or other hot green pepper

Make the vagar (base): heat a generous few tablespoons of canola oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Once the heat is shimmery, add the cumin and mustard seeds; they should pop and crackle. Sprinkle the turmeric on top of them.

Turn the heat down to medium and add the onion and ginger, plus fresh chili if you’re using it, sautéing until they just soften. Add the sugar, ground spices, and salt, then toss in the potatoes and curry leaves.

Cover the pot with a lid and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes have begun to soften and brown. Toss in the frozen peas and cover again.

In the meantime, gently rinse the poha in a colander—don’t soak, or the poha will dissolve. Once the potatoes and peas have cooked to your liking, toss in the wet poha and stir thoroughly. Turn off the heat, but re-cover the pot and leave on the stove for an additional 5-10 minutes before checking for salt and serving.

Possible serving accompaniments: squeeze of lemon, Sriracha or other hot sauce, tamarind or cilantro chutney, or ketchup, a childhood favorite which I’m not ashamed to say I still use from time to time.

Share/Save/Bookmark

CHEESE GRITS

This time last year, there was chemo.  There were long lists of scary side effects, orange bottles with big white pills, daily heparin flushes for the PICC line, and not insignificant amounts of fear, worry, nausea, and exhaustion.

There were also: text messages, phone calls, gift cards, prayers, sweet cards in the mail nearly every day, emails, King Ranch casserole, matzo ball soup, more love, care, and support than we knew it was possible for two people to receive, and these cheese grits.

If you’re not from the great American South, you may never have had cheese grits before, and that’s a crying shame.  (Note for newbies: it’s always “grits,” never “grit,” no matter the quantity.)  Even if you are quite familiar with cheese grits, this recipe is worth a try, because it quite simply yields the best damn cheese grits I have ever had.

My Georgia-born colleague Katie generously gifted me and Jill with a Tupperware full of these grits last February, and we, along with a few visitors, promptly devoured them in a few days.  I know the term “comfort food” is overused, but let me tell you—comforting is still being able to eat delicious home cooked food but not having to cook it.  Comfort is adding cheese grits to the very short list of things your spouse actually feels like eating after her first round of chemo.

So much can change in a year. Our friend Courtney, who surprised us last year with a sonogram picture on the morning we shared these cheese grits with her, now has a beautiful four-and-a-half month old baby boy.  Friends have gotten married and engaged; friends have moved into and out of our lives.  (And just think, this time last year there was no Pinterest!—how did we live?)  Most importantly, Jill is blessedly well and thriving, and we are so deliriously HAPPY and grateful to have each day together, minus the cancer.

THE WORLD’S BEST CHEESE GRITS
Recipe from Southern Sideboards, which is the Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi’s cookbook, via Katie Ray.

If you are looking to indulge this weekend while watching a certain football game, look no further.  These could not be easier to make and they will serve a generous portion for 6-8.

ingredients:

7 c water
2 c quick (not instant) grits
4 eggs
½ c milk
2 sticks butter, melted
12 oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated or cut into cubes
~1 tsp garlic powder
Dash of Tabasco

Salt boiling water, add grits. Cook until they’re done, around 7-8 min. Stir in butter, eggs, milk, and cheese. Stir in garlic and Tabasco. Pour into greased 9 x 13 Pyrex, and cook at 350 for roughly an hour. Cover with foil if they start browning too much on the top.

Serve hot/warm, and cool before refrigerating or freezing any leftovers.

|