HOMEMADE CRYSTALLIZED GINGER

Is it just me, or is there a lot of competitive holiday-ing going on out there?

Don’t get me wrong, I love Pinterest and food/style blogs and Instagram and gift guides as much as the next girl, but sometimes I think that all of this display can mess with our heads. Maybe it’s not meant to be competitive, but when everyone else’s life appears to be perfectly packaged, in cute recycled cardboard boxes festooned with washi tape and organic baker’s twice, then photographed using the perfect vintage filter, it’s easy to feel like your life doesn’t measure up.

This is not what the holidays are about.

The holidays are not a competitive sport. They are not meant for comparing your life (or holiday card or wrapping job or homemade toffee) to everyone else’s. They are not about feeling obligated to whip up magazine-page-worthy meals from scratch or addressing your custom typography/photo collage holiday cards in metallic pen calligraphy or making sure that your tree ornaments are all in the same color family or festooning your mantle and door with homemade decorations from pine boughs you chopped yourself.

You don’t have to host the most charming holiday party or have just the right present picked out for everyone. If you don’t do these things, the holidays will go on, and they will not lose any of their real meaning.

I’m all for making this time of year special, but when we make it so damn significant that every inch of it is up for inspection and ornamentation, we’ve defeated the point.

HOMEMADE CRYSTALLIZED GINGER

Okay, it may seem totally hypocritical that I waxed on about resisting the holiday pressure to do it all and now I’m offering you a recipe for making your own crystallized ginger. I know, I KNOW.

Please know I’m not implying that you ought to be making your own crystallized ginger, just that you can make it at home should you be planning to do some holiday baking or would like to give some away as gifts. But if you care not for the stuff or can’t be bothered to do one more damn thing right now, then ignore me.

ingredients:

2 cups water
2 cups sugar
2 cups fresh ginger, peeled and cut into 1/8” strips or coins

Bring the water and sugar to a boil over high heat, then add the ginger pieces. Reduce the heat to medium and continue to boil the mixture until the ginger becomes translucent, 25-30 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon or strainer, transfer the ginger pieces to a drying rack set over a cookie sheet (to keep drips off of your counter). Allow the ginger to cool and dry for half an hour before rolling the pieces in granulated sugar. In the meantime, reduce the leftover liquid down until you have yourself a nice ginger syrup (perfect in tea or cocktails!)

Return the sugared ginger to a clean rack and allow the pieces to dry out thoroughly before storing them in an airtight container. The finished crystallized should no longer feel tacky and should “ping” when you drop the pieces into a jar.

Looking for a recipe to use your ginger in?  These ginger-macadamia nut cookies are a favorite.

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THIRTY

Tonight is the last night of my twenties!  I’m going to drink some bourbon and, if the weather cooperates, sit by a fireplace and say goodbye to one decade and hello to another.

We’ve had a good run, twenties, you and I.  We’ve grown a lot, God knows.

We lied to people in ways that were really hurtful. We were judgmental, twenties—like wow.  We were righteous, defensive, petty, and conceited.  We were also spontaneous, effusive, ambitious, and strong.  We did things we look back on with tremendous pride.  (There are also a few things that make us shake our head.)

We learned what true-blue friendships really look like, the kind that you work on, the kind you invest in, the kind that blossom both in the short-term and in the long, long term, stretching out over a decade now.  We’ve learned to trust the ebb and flow of people, in and out of our lives, knowing that there really is a time for every season.

We have kissed people when we probably shouldn’t have, and not kissed people, then wished we had.  We have had too much to drink.  We have taken things for granted.

We have gotten a few things under our belt: how to make pasta from scratch, how to get eighth graders engaged in English class, how to show up on time and be an adult, how to suck it up and deal when things are hard, how to love without abandon or regret.

We have been blessed, we have taken some fabulous trips, we have grieved and we have experienced exquisite joy.

Thanks for the ride, twenties—I’ll look back on you fondly, but I’m ready for what’s next.

HOMEMADE CRANBERRY SAUCE

YOU GUYS.  Thanksgiving is next week.  When the hell did that happen?

Seriously, I swear the holiday has snuck up on me this year (you too, perhaps?), but this is kind of a good thing.  It means, much like having only sixteen days notice to get ready for a baby, that I can’t overcomplicate things too much.  I can not plan my many plans.  I can’t over-think and re-think the menu, making things less fun and more fussy.  I can’t go overboard.

I know that “overboard” is normally what Thanksgiving is about, but this year I’m aiming for right at or above board instead.  I’ve got a turkey in the freezer, and I plan to try brining him (a first) before letting Jill roast him (she’s the expert in our house).  I’ve made the cranberry sauce you see here, and my mom and I are both craving pecan pie, so that’s on the docket.

Jill will probably whip up some of her famous deviled eggs, and I loved my friend Rebecca’s grandmother’s dinner rolls so much last year that I think I will have to make them again.  Mom makes a killer vegetarian dressing.  Throw in a couple of vegetables—butternut squash?  green beans?  beets? (I’m totally open to suggestions here)—and I think we will call it a day.

This year, I’m leaving the perfectly coordinated, picture-perfect, show-stopping Thanksgiving to someone else.   And for that, I feel truly grateful.

HOMEMADE CRANBERRY SAUCE

This cranberry sauce has the texture of a loose jelly and a very bright, sweet-tart cranberry flavor.  It’s dead simple to make and is a lovely addition to the Thanksgiving meal as well as to leftover turkey sandwiches (especially when paired with mayonnaise!).

I use port in my sauce, but you can substitute red wine, or even water.  Keeps very well in the fridge, so it’s great for making ahead of time.

ingredients:

1 (12 oz) bag cranberries
zest of 1 navel orange
juice from half of the orange (approximately 1/8 cup)
¾ cup water
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup port*

Combine all ingredients in a deep saucepan.  Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook over medium heat for 15-20 minutes, stirring regularly.  As the sauce cooks, the cranberries will burst and break down, so I like to keep a lid partially covering the pan, to prevent splatter.

The sauce is ready when it has reduced by almost half and is quite thick in texture, sticking a little as it pulls away from the side of the saucepan while you stir.  Cool completely, then refrigerate before serving.

*If you’re feeling boozy, you can bump this amount up to ½ cup & drop the water down to ½ cup.  Any proportion will work as long as you end up with 1 cup of liquid total, plus the orange juice.

Along with cranberry sauce, here are some other ideas for your Thanksgiving table:

Bread

the aforementioned Grandma Nettie’s dinner rolls
sweet potato biscuits
cracked wheat rolls

Starters

deviled eggs
mushroom bruschetta
saffron/cauliflower soup

Sides

braised fennel with Meyer lemon & Parmesan
butternut squash risotto
stir-fried sweet potatoes with sage & brown butter


Dessert

apple-pear crostada
McIntosh apple tart
poached pears with pomegranate

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DIWALI 2012

Diwali is about hope and joy, the promise that light will always find its way in, no matter how dark and lonely the corner.  But the true magic of Diwali comes, I think, as so many magical things do, in the form of love; it is our loving of each other, truly and fiercely that forces the light into the cracks.

We celebrated Diwali on Sunday at brunch, friends and loved ones gathered in a house filled with candles, too much food, and a baby who loves to chew on fingers.

If there is one thing I can always feel sure of, no matter how many other things in my life feel confusing or uncertain, it is the mandate of loving the people in my life: fully, joyfully, without abandon.  I know I can never go wrong doing that.

“Love is not consolation.  It is light.” (Fredrich Nietzsche)

Diwali Celebrations, previously: 2011, 2010, & 2009.

2012 Diwali Brunch Menu:

beverages
chai
Bloody Marys
mimosas made with pomegranate juice or mango nectar
Meyer lemonade made with rosemary simple syrup

snacks
roasted chickpeas (spiced with this fabulous blend)
hand pies, some stuffed with saag, others with keema
cilantro & tamarind chutneys

meal
saffron yogurt with fruit & seeds
coconut muffins
vegetable biryani (I added paneer)
eggs poached in Indian-style tomato sauce (a riff off of shakshuka)
Indian-style potatoes & fresh puris (both made by my mom)
chai-pistachio cake
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RAS EL HANOUT

Currently in my house: baby asleep, Jill working on her laptop on the couch next to me, and my mom rustling around in the guest bedroom.

My mom is here because my mom LIVES here.  Well, not in this house (that’s temporary until the moving truck with all of her stuff comes next week), but in this town.  In our neighborhood, in fact.  Less than two miles from our house!

This has been the season of major life transitions for the Mehra women; I became a working mom, she became a retired grandmother.  And we both said goodbye to the house I grew up in, the house where we last spent time with my father, the house with the yard my mother spent hundreds of hours in over the years, gardening like a crazy woman—the very same yard in which my friends and I played-pretend and climbed the side-yard fence, even though we weren’t supposed to.

I am thrilled, of course, that my mom is here, that I get to see her every day, that she gets to see her grandson every day, that we are no longer separated by hundreds of miles.  I am eager to recreate our relationship in this new context and build a whole separate set of memories and traditions as a family.  But even with all of the joy, I can’t help but feel sad at the ending of an era.  I will miss that house; I will miss my regular trips to Memphis.  I miss my father, always.

Nostalgia can be a trap, I know, and I don’t want to get caught in it.  My memory dances around how things used to be and my imagination wonders how things will be; maybe I should work on just being here with what is happening right now: my three favorite people in the world are together under one roof.  Right now, I am a very lucky so-and-so.

RAS EL HANOUT RECIPE
recipe from Cook Almost Anything

When I came across this recipe, I was excited to give it a try; I have a bit of a fascination with Morocco and Moroccan food.  I had seen several recipes calling for ras el hanout (including the one below), and had assumed that the spice blend would be difficult to come by or make.  As it turns out, I already had the requisite ingredients on hand but had never combined them in this particular way.

The resulting blend was incredibly aromatic without being overpowering or too heady.  I think it would make a wonderful rub for grilled meat, and plan to employ it again with other roasted vegetables.  As with all spice blends, feel free to tailor to suit your tastes.

Morocco is at the top of my travel bucket list, but for now I may have to settle for channeling its smells with the little jar of ras el hanout that lives in my spice cabinet!

ingredients:

2 teaspoons coriander seeds

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon cardamom seeds

½ teaspoon fennel seeds

½ teaspoon black peppercorns

½ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon cayenne

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon salt

Over medium-low heat, toast the seeds and peppercorns in a frying pan.  Give them about 3-4 minutes, or until they smell deeply fragrant, jiggling the pan occasionally to prevent scorching. Cool, then combine with the rest of the ingredients in a spice grinder and process until smooth.

Yields a little less than a quarter cup; store in an airtight container in cool, dry place.

 

MOROCCAN CHICKPEAS & ROASTED VEGETABLES
adapted from Gourmet, May 2008

I wish I had a photograph to show you of this lovely, hearty dish, but my computer seems to have eaten the shots that Sonya took for me about a month ago.  Seriously, no idea where they went.  And she is currently on vacation in Belize, where I am not going to bother her.  So please use your imagination on this one!  It was delicious.

The original recipe called for zucchini and carrots instead of butternut squash, so feel free to change up the vegetables used here.

ingredients:

½ head cauliflower, cut into 1-inch florets

½ large or 1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded, & cut into 1-inch cubes

1 fennel bulb (reserve stalks for another use), cored and cut into ½-inch wedges

1 large red onion, peeled & cut into 1-inch chunks

3 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced lengthwise

1 15-oz. can diced tomatoes

2 cups cooked chickpeas*

½ cup dried Turkish apricots, halved

1 cinnamon stick

2 tsp. ras-el-hanout

1 tsp. honey

¾ tsp. red-pepper flakes

water

olive oil

garnish: ¼ cup chopped cilantro, sliced/chopped almonds
serve with: cooked barley or quinoa

Preheat the oven to 400°.  Toss the cauliflower, fennel, butternut squash, & onion with generous amounts of olive oil and the ras-el-hanout.  Transfer the vegetables to a shallow, foil-lined baking dish or casserole and sprinkle with salt.  Roast until they are tender and just beginning to brown, approximately 25-35 minutes.

Once the vegetables have cooked, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in your biggest skillet and add the garlic, cooking to infuse the oil with flavor.  Add the apricots, cinnamon stick, and red-pepper flakes, cooking until fragrant.  Pour in the tomatoes with their juice, then fill the empty can with water and add that along with the chickpeas and honey.

Spoon the roasted vegetables into the mixture and gently stir everything to combine.  Simmer until the liquid has reduced a bit, about 5 minutes.  Check for salt and add as needed.  Serve.

*I soaked & cooked dried chickpeas for this dish, instead of using canned–it’s super-easy to do and produces a wonderfully creamy texture.  Cheap, too!

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CIDER SIDECARS

I know it’s arbitrary, but I am glad to welcome a new month.  October was a tough one for me; I am ready to leave it behind.


I feel ready to start a new decade, too; my birthday is this month—the big 3-0.  As I approach that milestone, I have been thinking a lot about what I have built or acquired over these last (nearly) three decades, what I’ve seen and where I’ve been, what I’m proud of having accomplished and created.  What I keep coming back to are my friends.

A recent Newsweek article I read quotes a study out of the University of Chicago about human development; according to the findings, we choose most of our adult friendships between the ages of 22 and 28.  The relationships we establish in that time period end up being our most solid, dependable, and joyful ones, and much of the important “work” of our twenties is figuring out how to manage, negotiate, and commit to those relationships.

Isn’t that the truth?  I had never thought about it in exactly those terms, but there is something really affirming about reading about this work as a necessary and right stage of our development.  I remember so distinctly those years that my friends and I were trying to figure out what it meant to live on our own terms, as adults, and trying to determine what our friendships meant outside of the context of high school or college or graduate school.

Some of this work was really difficult.  I had to come to terms with some of the nastier parts of myself: my tendency to judge, my defensiveness, my habit of acting like everything was fine, even when it wasn’t.  I had to be really honest and really vulnerable and trust my friends enough to let it all hang out (and admit that I had been previously holding back) and I’ll be damned if that wasn’t scary as hell at the time.

But oh how grateful I am for that work, and for the people who were generous enough to do it with me.   There is nothing I am more proud of than my relationships; they are my true accomplishments from this life so far.

Of course, it’s not as if I’m all done and closed for business just because I’m about to turn thirty; I know there will be plenty of other work ahead, and it will be just as important to be open and honest and willing to work on my relationships as it’s ever been.  But I do feel, especially in this past month that has been rough around the edges, how blessed I am to have a solid foundation of friends with no shortage of empathy, humor, and generosity.  They offer me advice, bring me back to myself, make me laugh, feed me dinner, send me home with good books, push me, and mock me lovingly.  I’m biased, but I think they’re superstars.

 

BOURBON-LEMON-HONEY-CIDER COCKTAIL RECIPE
adapted from Garden & Gun

Friends are especially great when they come with a lemon tree.  We visited our friends Vicky and Lois (whom I was lucky to “inherit” from Jill) on their farm this past weekend and they sent us home with these beauties, which taste and smell like a variety close to Meyer.  Since I sliced open the first one, I have been hoarding them for only the highest uses—of which a bourbon cocktail surely is one.

If you’re like me, you’ll enjoy this cocktail as-written.  If you’re like Jill, you’ll want to add a good bit more lemon juice for it to suit your taste.

I know there’s a good potential name for this drink out there, but I couldn’t manage to come up with one.  Any ideas?

ingredients:

1 oz. bourbon
1 oz. fresh apple cider
1 oz. fresh lemon juice
½ oz. honey syrup*

optional but highly recommended: pinch of ground cardamom
purely ornamental garnish: apple slice

Pour the bourbon, apple cider, lemon juice, and honey syrup into a shaker, over ice, and shake.  Strain into a glass filled with fresh ice and garnish with cardamom and/or apple slice.

*For the honey syrup, combine equal parts honey and water in a small saucepan. Heat and stir until the honey has dissolved.  Remove from heat and cool.

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