BAKED RICOTTA

My mom has religiously read The Sun magazine from cover-to-cover since I bought her a subscription about a year ago. Occasionally, she passes issues back to me, with pages dog-eared to indicate “Read this,” and now I do the same to you, pointing you to this piece, “The Geography of Sorrow.” It is a powerful conversation—technically an interview—that cuts wide swaths through issues such as our cultural responses to grief, the impacts of trauma and shame, and the power of ritual. All in all, the piece makes a lot of damn sense while also being quite beautiful. Can any of us writers hope for much more? To make a lot of damn sense while also being quite beautiful?


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At one point, the subject of the interview, Francis Weller, quotes Kahlil Gibran: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”  The quote appears as part of a discussion of our cultural compulsion to narrowly limit what feelings we will acknowledge, instead choosing to numb or deny in order to keep ourselves from fully experiencing our lives:

“In this culture we display a compulsive avoidance of difficult matters and an obsession with distraction. Because we cannot acknowledge our grief, we’re forced to stay on the surface of life…We experience little genuine joy in part because we avoid the depths.”

Our relentless emphasis on positivity and insistence on seeing “the bright side” of things has the unintended effect of keeping us on life’s surface, like the buoyant toys Shiv tries unsuccessfully to force to sink to the bottom of the bathtub. Why is it that we are so afraid to go under, when under is where the depth is, where the gratitude originates, the only place wisdom can be born? As a parent, I want to make sure that my son has the courage and trust in himself to confront the darkness of things, whether inside himself or in the world around him; I want the same for my students.

And that, of course, means being willing to dive in myself, and to let them all see me when I do.

baked ricotta | Blue Jean Gourmet

BAKED RICOTTA
Recipe barely adapted from Apt. 2 Baking Co.

ingredients:

2 cups whole milk ricotta
½ cup Parmesan cheese (I used shredded mixed Italian cheese, because that’s what I had)
3-4 T olive oil, plus more to finish
2 T chopped fresh herbs (I used rosemary & oregano), plus more for garnish
Zest of half a lemon
½ tsp. salt & generous grinds of black pepper, plus more to taste

Preheat oven to 350°. Stir the cheeses, olive oil, herbs, zest, salt & pepper together until smooth. Tur the mixture out into an oven-safe dish and bake until everything is warm and beginning to brown on top, approximately 20 minutes. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil and garnish with additional herbs, if you wish.

I served ours with toasted slices of this homemade bread (with a cup of rye substituted for AP flour, to add a bit of heft). We all gobbled it up this way, as part of dinner of meatballs and glazed carrots, but baked ricotta would also make a wonderful party spread with crackers and olives. I plan to recreate this during the holidays!

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CINCO

Damn, I’ve been riding this train longer than I thought.

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A lot of living has happened in the past five years; I guess you could say that of any five years, but a bunch sure has been packed into this particular five.  I went from being 26 to 31, from being in my second year of teaching to my seventh, from teaching sixth grade to eighth grade, and soon, onto eleventh and twelfth.  I became a parent. I wrote a book.

So much witnessing of these big events has taken place here—Jill’s cancer especially comes to mind—and it’s hard for me to remember what I did before I had this space to document and share.  This blog has afforded me countless opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, gifting me a whole host of new people to be connected with and teaching me: about myself, my tendencies, my voice, yes, but also about discipline, about the kindness of strangers (which, it turns out, you actually can depend on), about community and about storytelling.

I had the pleasure of being part of a panel on food writing this past weekend, and in answer to the question “Why food writing?” one of my fellow panelists, David, said it best—food is a lens through which we can examine nearly every aspect of the human experience.  Whether at the global or the individual level, we track our evolution through food, we create containers for our memories, we comfort, we cajole, we delight, we explore, we seduce.

We celebrate.

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In honor of my blog’s little birthday, what the hell, let’s do a little giveaway.  I’m so not on the ball—I realized yesterday that my blogaversary was today, oops!—but I’d really like to say “thank you” for being out there and reading and witnessing.  It still feels like a miracle to me that there are people actually reading this who are not, say, my mom.  (Hi mom!  You’re the best!)  So let’s say this giveaway is open until Friday at midnight, then Shiv & I will head to the Farmers Market on Saturday morning, pick up some of our favorite local products, and mail ‘em out next week, along with a signed copy of my book.  I might even bake you some cookies, you never know.

One of my favorite things ever in the whole world is when someone tells me that they’ve made one of the recipes from my blog, so to enter the giveaway, simply leave a comment letting me know which recipe(s) from this blog you’ve enjoyed in the last five years.  If you haven’t made one of the recipes from the blog, but plan to, you can say that as well.  Or if you’re really just here for the writing and not the recipes, let me know which past post sticks in your mind.  Or you can just say hello.

UPDATE: Congratulations to Jennifer!  I hope you enjoy the little box of treats I sent your way.  Thanks to all of your for your lovely notes; they really mean so much to me.

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CLASSIC GUACAMOLE

recipe barely adapted from Roberto Santibañez, as shared by Food 52 (side note: if you’re not familiar with the “Genius Recipes” feature on Food 52, I can’t recommend it highly enough – the recipes are always winners)

This recipe has become the new standard-bear in our house.  For years and years, I made it the exact same way—the subject of my very first blog post, in fact—but ever since trying this recipe, the Carroll/Mehra clan has sworn allegiance to this garlic-free (!) version.  I think it really allows the lushness of the avocado to come through, without overpowering it.

As the original recipe notes, texture is key, so don’t skip the two-part avocado treatment.  To get perfectly ripe avocados, I’ve taken to buying them unripe, in bags, usually at Costco or Trader Joe’s, and letting them ripen on the counter near the bananas, then stashing them in the fridge once they give just a little and reveal green when you pull away the stem.  Given the sheer amount of guacamole Shiv can eat by himself, when I make a batch now, I have to use AT LEAST four medium-sized avocados to feed the three of us, because he basically eats two avocados worth of guac himself.  Sheesh.

classic guacamole | Blue Jean Gourmet

ingredients:

½ small white onion, chopped

½ Serrano chile, minced fine (I remove most but not all of the seeds; if you want more heat, leave the seeds in, if you want less, take all seeds out or use a jalapeño instead.)

¼ cup cilantro, chopped

juice of ½ a lime

½ tsp. Kosher salt or coarse sea salt

4 medium-sized Haas avocados

Transfer half of the chopped onion to a large bowl.  Add the flesh from two of the avocados and mash with the back of a fork, just breaking up the avocado pieces but leaving plenty of structure.  Cube the remaining avocado flesh and add it to the bowl.  Set aside.

Place the other half of the chopped onion, all of the chile, half of the cilantro, lime juice, salt into a mortar and pestle, mashing all ingredients into a wet paste.  Add this to the avocado mixture and very gentle fold everything together, leaving the cubes of avocado intact.  (At this point, the original recipe says to think about properly dressing a salad in a vinaigrette, a comparison I find very helpful.)

Top guacamole with the remaining cilantro, then test for salt, and adjust if needed.

Blog birthdays, previously: #1, #2, & #4.  I somehow managed to skip #3.

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A SUMMER BOOK CLUB BRUNCH

Let’s talk about some of my favorite things: food, drink, and books.

strawberry basil ginger punch | Blue Jean Gourmet

I wanted to share a few of the recipes that were a big hit at the book club meeting I hosted last weekend.  Unfortunately, Jill was out of town, so the photographs are mine and thus not really up to par; you’ll have to take my word for it all tasted much better than it looks!

The hits of the day were a carrot-avocado salad, pickled shrimp, & strawberry-ginger punch.  I also served my trusty deviled eggs and tried this yogurt panna cotta (it tasted great, but I think I badly measured my gelatin, as the texture was off.)  Since a few of our book club members are gluten-free, so I ordered a dozen GF cupcakes from a local baker and put together a cheese plate with GF crackers & olives; had I not ordered the cupcakes, I would have made these almond orange tea cakes—my friend and blog reader Christie shared with me that they easily adapt to be GF.

Now onto books—there are few things I love more than an overly ambitious summer reading list!  I just put together mine for this year, and I can’t wait to get started.  Side note: almost all of these were recommended by friends or students.  I’ve divided them into categories and linked to their Amazon listings.  For more book ideas, I recently updated my Reading Lists for adults & young adults!

Classics I Ought To Have Read By Now:

A Separate Peace (John Knowles)
A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth)
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (James Agee)

Historical Fiction:

The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)
Under the Volcano (Malcolm Lowry)

Just for Fun:

One Writer’s Beginnings (Eudora Welty)
The Dud Avocado (Elaine Dundy)
The End of Your Life Book Club (Will Schwalbe)
The Woman Upstairs (Claire Messud)

Non-Fiction:

Beyond the Beautiful Forevers (Katherine Boo)
Mornings on Horseback (David McCullough)
Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil (John Berendt)
Mountains Beyond Mountains (Tracy Kidder)

Poetry/Plays:

Red Doc> (Anne Carson)
Time Stands Still (Donald Marguilles)

Professional Development (as teacher & mom):

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Paul Tough)
The Art of Description: Word Into World (Mark Doty)

Young Adult Novels:

Beautiful Creatures (Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl)
The Future of Us (Jay Asher & Caroline Mackler)
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making (Catherynne M. Valente)
Winger (Andrew Smith)
Zoe’s Tale (John Scalzi)

What’s on your reading list this summer?  Please share in the comments!

roasted carrots & citrus salad | Blue Jean Gourmet

CARROT-AVOCADO SALAD
via Food52

I’d had my eye on this recipe for a while, because the ingredients are mostly ones we keep on hand, but with a very different method than I usually use.  Also, we have recently become converted to cooking carrots on the grill, so I figured that roasting them would also be delicious—and it was.

In an attempt to keep this fairly simple (as opposed to running out for lots of extra ingredients), I made a few adjustment to the original recipe: swapping the citrus, using grapefruit & lime instead of orange & lemon, and leaving out the crème fraîche.  The resulting salad got raves anyway, but I can see how including the crème fraîche would add a restaurant-level lushness to the dish.

oven: 450°

ingredients:

2 lb carrots (if small, just peel, but if large, peel, quarter, & cut into 3-inch pieces)
1 grapefruit
1 lime
2 cloves garlic
1 T fresh thyme
1 T sugar
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup sprouts
¼ cup cilantro, torn
1 avocado, cut into wedges
2 T toasted sunflower seeds
2 tsp. sesame seeds

While the oven is preheating, place the carrots in a saucepan and cover them with cold water.  Salt the water, turn the stove to high heat, and bring to a simmer.  Reduce to medium and continue to simmer until carrots are tender, 5-8 minutes.

As the carrots cook, cut the grapefruit & lime in half, juicing one half of each and reserving the other halves.  Reserve half of the fresh juice for later, and combine the other half with the garlic, cumin, thyme, red wine vinegar, red pepper flakes, and 2 T olive oil; process in the blender until smooth.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Once the carrots have cooked, drain them and toss them in the marinade.  Spread the carrots and unjuiced citrus halves on a baking sheet and roast until the carrots are reduced in size and with a few brown spots, approximately 20 minutes.  Allow the carrots to cool to room temperature.

While the carrots are cool, make the salad dressing.  Squeeze the juice from the roasted citrus halves and combine that juice with the reserved fresh juice.  Whisk together with sugar, remaining olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.

Combine the carrots and avocado slices on a platter.  Top with the sprouts, and sprinkle with the seeds.  Drizzle the dressing over the whole thing and serve immediately.

 

PICKLED SHRIMP
slightly adapted from Saveur

If you’ve never had pickled shrimp before, you are in for a treat!  These were so easy and so good that I’m planning to make them again this weekend as a pre-dinner appetizer (re-using some of the original brining liquid).  I’ll admit, 12 bay leaves seemed a little excessive to me, but they did not at all dominate the flavor, so don’t be frightened by the quantity!

pickled shrimp | Blue Jean Gourmet

ingredients:

~1 lb. medium shrimp (26-30 count), peeled & deveined
2 T Old Bay
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil (more if needed)
12 dried bay leaves
half of a yellow onion, thinly sliced lengthwise
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 T kosher salt
½ tsp. crushed red chile flakes
½ tsp. celery seeds
¼ tsp. ground allspice

First, prepare a bowl of ice water and place a colander in the sink.  Bring eight cups of water to a boil along with the Old Bay.  Add the shrimp, turn heat to low, and cook until the shrimp are pink, just about two minutes.  Drain the shrimp and cool in the ice water, then drain again.

In a 1-quart glass jar, layer the shrimp, onions, and bay leaves.  Combine the remaining ingredients in a bowl with a pour spout or Pyrex measuring cup, and pour into the jar, adding more oil if necessary to submerge the shrimp.  Cover with the lid, and chill at least overnight before serving.  Will keep for up to a week as long as the shrimp are completely covered with oil.

 

STRAWBERRY-GINGER PUNCH
slightly adapted from Bon Appetit

The original recipe called for brandy, which I did not have on hand, so I subbed in vodka; I also think this recipe would work nicely with gin and/or St. Germain in a kind of a play on a Pimm’s Cup.

I recommend making the simple syrup ahead of time (up to a week) for easy assembly on the day you are planning to serve the punch.

strawberry ginger punch | Blue Jean Gourmet

for the simple syrup:

1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
½ cup hulled & quartered strawberries
¼ cup peeled & sliced fresh ginger

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar.  Reduce heat and simmer until the berries have softened.  Remove from heat and let cool before straining into a jar.

for the punch:

24-oz. club soda (keep cold)
2 ½ cups strawberries, hulled & quartered, divided
1 ½ cups vodka or other spirit of your choice
½ cup basil leaves, divided
¼ cup peeled & sliced fresh ginger
¼ cup fresh lime juice

At least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours before you plan to serve the punch, muddle 2 cups strawberries, ¼ cup basil, and ginger in a large jar or pitcher. Add vodka, lime juice, & simple syrup, and stir.  Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Strain the muddled mixture into a punch bowl or glass jar, pressing down on the fruit & herbs to release all the flavor.  Add the club soda and reserved strawberries and basil—I also threw in a few wheels of fresh lime so it would look even prettier.

Pour and enjoy!

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GOUGÈRES

This year, I made many a cup of properly spicy and milky chai.  I shared the secret to indulgent, old-school cheese grits, made a vanilla bean panna cotta for Valentine’s Day, posted a guest recipe for addictive, homemade sriracha, and wrote about that beloved Indian restaurant staple: saag paneer.

There were a few “do-it-yourself” projects: a big ole’ birthday cake, spiced nuts, made-from-scratch applesauce, and  cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving.

Jill & I drank our fair share of champagne cocktails, fell in love with an eggplant salad, and joyfully welcomed baby Shiv into our lives.  My mom retired, sold the house I grew up in, and moved to a new house less than two miles away from ours.

It’s been a YEAR, friends.  Jill & I plan to celebrate it with some homemade pasta and a trip to the movies while Shiv hangs out with his grandmother.  On New Year’s Day, we’ll offer the little man his first taste of solid food—sweet potatoes from our dear friends’ garden.

If you’ve got festivities lined up to ring in 2013, allow me to humbly suggest you bring some of these gougères to the party.  Light, addictive, and just a little bit fancy, these bites of cheese-filled pastry are easy to make ahead and reheat when you’re ready to serve them (alongside glasses of champagne, of course!)

gougeres | Blue Jean Gourmet
Happy, happy new year, friends.  How will you be celebrating?

GOUGÈRES
Recipe from Alain Ducasse as published in Food & Wine, October 2003

To make gougères, you first make pâte à choux, or choux pastry, which is the same pastry dough used to make éclairs, profiteroles, and beignets, among other French desserts.

Pâte à choux is cooked twice—first in a saucepan as you make the dough, and a second time in the oven (or fryer, in the case of beignets), where the large amount of moisture in the dough creates steam that makes the pastry rise.

Though pâte à choux sounds fancy and intimidating, it isn’t really, I promise.  The main thing is to make sure you have your mise en place
—ingredients at the ready—and then it’s as simple as following directions and feeling impressed with yourself when the gougères come out of the oven.

gougeres for New Year's | Blue Jean Gourmet

ingredients:

½ cup water
½ cup milk
4 oz. unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons
large pinch of salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 eggs
1 cup shredded Gruyère, plus a few pinches more for sprinkling
freshly ground pepper
freshly grated nutmeg

oven: 400°
pan: baking sheets lined with parchment

To make the pastry, combine the water, milk, butter, and salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.  Add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon until a smooth dough forms; turn the heat down to low and continue to stir until the dough pulls away from the pan and looks dry.

Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool for 1-2 minutes.  Add the eggs to the dough, one at a time, mixing vigorously and thoroughly between each one.  Don’t worry if the dough appears to curdle and separate at first!  Keep stirring and it will come together.  Once all of the eggs have been added, stir in the cheese and a few generous grinds of pepper and a pinch of grated nutmeg.

Spoon the dough into a pastry bag fitted with a ½-inch round tip (or, if you’re me, into a large Ziploc bag with a small piece cut off of the corner).  Piping in a spiral shape, make tablespoon-size rounds on the baking sheets, leaving about an inch of room between each one.  Sprinkle with extra cheese and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until puffed and light brown.  Serve immediately.

If you are making the gougères ahead, let them cool completely and then refrigerate or freeze them in an airtight container or bag.  Reheat in a 350° oven until nice and hot.

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CORN CAKES

Two of the best things about summer, if you ask me, are fresh corn and sitting in a chair (or on a beach or deck chair or hammock, etc.) and reading uninterrupted for an hour (or two or three).

For a while I have wanted to create a section of this website devoted to book suggestions, putting in one place the smaller lists that have trickled out in various posts over the years: young adult, younger adult, book club favorites, classics, contemporary fiction, contemporary nonfiction.  Each book is linked to its Amazon listing, and comes with my own brief summary/description.  You can also print or email the lists if you like!

Click here for the Reading Lists page (You can also access the page whenever you like by using the “Reading Lists” tab in the website’s header.)

I love few things more than talking about good books, so please leave your own recommendations in the comments!  I am hoping to work through a sizable stack of books this summer, so I promise to update my lists.  Also toying with the idea of adding more categories—any requests?

Happy summer reading, folks!  Don’t forget that sunscreen.

CORN CAKES
adapted from Ezra Pound Cake

makes 12-15 small cakes or 6-8 large ones; recipe doubles easily

Think of these cakes as a riff on a hush puppy—pan fried instead of deep fried, they maintain the crisped-edge lightness of a really good hush puppy, but are substantive enough to make for a lovely little dinner when paired with a salad and some grilled vegetables.  I also think they would be fantastic party appetizers or even work at brunch, perhaps with some pickled or cocktail shrimp.

I essentially made these from things we already had around the house, a quality I love in a recipe.  If you don’t have or like green onions, substitute white or red onion, and feel free to add other herbs if cilantro’s not your thing: basil, parsley, even mint.

ingredients:

2 ears fresh corn
3 stalks green onion, green & white parts chopped
1 egg
¾ cup cornmeal
¼ cup flour
¼ tsp. chopped cilantro
½ tsp. each baking powder & baking soda
½ tsp. smoked paprika
¼ tsp. cayenne
2 T buttermilk (more, if necessary)
2 T melted butter
salt & pepper

for serving: sour cream, chopped tomato & avocado, salt, lemon juice

Heat a large, preferably cast-iron skillet over medium heat.  Add a few inches of canola oil.  (Do this first so you don’t have to wait on it later.)  Place a paper-towel lined cookie sheet in a low oven.

Cut the kernels off of the corn carefully, then place them in a large bowl along with the green onion and cilantro.  This mixture will be fairly wet, so add the dry ingredients to them first, to coat—this will help prevent them from spattering when frying.

I like to mix all of the wet ingredients together in a liquid measuring cup, then pour them into a well in the dry ingredients.  Use a spatula to fold the mixture together, then check the consistency with your fingers to see if the batter will hold up to form patties.  Add more buttermilk or cornmeal, if needed.  You don’t want the mixture to be too dry, otherwise they will fry up dense, but you also don’t want it to be too gloppy or it won’t hold together.

Use spoon to ease the first patty into the hot oil; it should sizzle.  Watch out for splattering oil and adjust the heat as necessary—you want hot enough so the patties will brown quickly, but not so hot that it’s dangerous to stand next to the pan! (I am speaking from experience here).

Use a thin spatula to flip the patties after a minute or minute and a half, depending on size.  Brown on the other side before removing to the oven while you continue to fry the rest.

Serve hot, with any or all of the above suggestions—hot sauce might be nice, too! Cool any leftovers completely before storing in the fridge, then reheat using a toaster oven (or toaster, if your patties are thin enough).

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ALOO TIKKI

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.

ingredients:

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.

FATHER’S DAY 2011: KEEMA HAND PIES

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.

ingredients:

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
pinch turmeric
vegetable oil
salt

fresh cilantro

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.

MUSHROOM BRUSCHETTA

It always works this way.

At the end of the year, or the end of the school year, or the beginning of vacation, I have a couple of days of pure, unadulterated elation, days full of plans: a dinner of seemingly never-ending Lebanese food, cranberry scones with lemon curd for brunch, a Christmas open house with a mariachi band, an evening full of football-watching that leaves empty bottles of wine on the counter for recycling.

But then, somewhere in there, when I’ve reached the bottom of my to-do list, I find myself feeling sad. Like really, unbelievable, out-of-nowhere, sobbing-at-the-kitchen-table sad. Because my father’s still dead. And that still really sucks.

I say this only because I know I am far from the only one for whom the holidays can be really, really hard. When you’ve lost someone—no matter how long it’s been—these days of “home for the holidays” can draw that absence up to the surface, pushing and tugging and scratching the skin. The songs, the signs, the rituals, even the cheesy Christmas commercials, all of them can trigger grief.

So check in on your friends and family, especially if they are going through the “first round” of holidays without a loved one. They may not want company, but they will, I promise, appreciate the compassion.

MUSHROOM BRUSCHETTA
recipe inspired by Tom Gutting, a tall, friendly guy with a nice smile and a wine blog

You know when you eat something so good that you remember it for months afterward? And you are kind of jealous that you didn’t come up with it yourself? And every once in a while you wish you had more of it to it, right then at that very moment?

And then one day you see oyster & crimini mushrooms at the Farmers’ Market and you think “TODAY IS THE DAY! I will recreate Tom’s mushroom bruschetta!”?

No? That’s never happened to you?  Curious .

I’m not sure if I did Tom’s original version justice, but what I came up with sure did taste good.

ingredients:

3 cups chopped mushrooms, mixed variety
2 thick slices of bacon, diced (use 3 or 4 if your bacon’s more thinly sliced)
¼ cup fresh thyme, on the stem, plus a bit more for garnish
a glug (maybe 1/8 cup?) of cognac (substitute red or white wine or sherry)
knob of butter (3-4 T)

for serving: a loaf of crusty bread (a baguette or Italian loaf would work nicely)
chevre or other soft goat’s milk cheese

Cook the bacon in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Depending on the amount of fat that’s rendered, you can pour some off (but don’t pour it out!—store that good stuff in a jar in the fridge, please). Reduce the heat to medium, then throw in the butter, mushrooms, and thyme, sautéing it all until the mushrooms brown.

Add the end, pour in the cognac and deglaze the pan, letting the mixture cook down until the liquid is reduced. Turn off the heat and remove the thyme stems from the pan. Stir in some freshly ground pepper and salt to taste.

To assemble, slice and toast the bread. Spread generously with cheese, then top with mushroom mix. Sprinkle with reserved thyme leaves and serve.

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PANKO-CRUSTED PORTOBELLOS

Sometimes I just have to write about something that has nothing to do with food.

As many of you already know, I am an eighth grade English teacher by day, a job that I love, love, love, love, love.  Right now it’s especially easy to be in love with it because we are in the middle of reading Fahrenheit 451.  Originally published in 1953, the book serves for many students as an introduction to “real” literature, their first piece of the canon, a real, adult novel.  And it’s so perfect for fourteen-year-olds.

The themes of censorship, corrupt authority, man’s search for happiness, and the impact of a dysfunctional, technology-dependent society ring true for them, leading to fantastic discussions and debates.  I’m especially blessed to work with a thoughtful, passionate co-teacher named Ben, with whom I have collaborated,  aligning my English curriculum with his history lesson plans.  To teach this book at the same time he is discussing the Cold War, Stalin, Eastern Europe, and the nuclear arms race with our students is, for lack of better language, the coolest thing ever.

To throw even more synchronicity into the mix, this week is National Banned Books Week.  As our kids have learned, schools and libraries around the country are still removing books from shelves, usually on the objections of a small, fear-mongering minority.  They were rather indignant to learn that this kind of thing happens in the world they live in, and surprised to discover that many of the Ten Most-Challenged Books of 2009 are ones they themselves have read.

If you haven’t read Fahrenheit 451, a book about banning books that is often, ironically, banned itself,  my students and I would love to recommend it to you.   We are having a blast discussing the similarities between Bradbury’s dystopian world and our own, analyzing what seems unchanging about human behavior, and feeling pretty badass for reading a book some people don’t want us to.

PANKO-CRUSTED PORTOBELLOS

This is a take on the marinated-and-fried mushrooms of my childhood, which were always thickly breaded and served with ranch.  Not that I would turn my nose up at them now; they’re the kind of nostalgic bar/patio food I have a hard time resisting when in front of me.   At the same time, when I tasted this slightly sophisticated version a few weeks ago at The Grove Grill in Memphis , I immediately knew I wanted to try and recreate them.  They went like hotcakes last weekend, so I know I’ll be making them again, probably by request (Sonya says it’s one of her new favorites).  I think they’d make an elegant starter for a small dinner party.

for the mushrooms:

4-5 portobellos, wiped clean with a damp paper towel
2 eggs
2 cups Panko (Japanese) breadcrumbs

Remove the stems from the mushrooms and discard.  Using a grapefruit spoon, scrape out the gills from each mushroom cap.  Slice the mushrooms into thick slivers, like fat French fries.  The pieces should be very dry.

In a wide bowl, whisk together the eggs with a little water.  In a separate bowl, pour in the breadcrumbs.  You can add seasoning if you like, but I left mine plain and let the dipping sauce impart flavor.

Heat several inches of canola or other vegetable oil in a deep, sturdy pot.  You want medium-high heat until the oil is shimmery; once you start frying, you can adjust if the mushrooms are browning too quickly or too slowly.

Line an oven-safe plate with paper towels and place inside a low oven.  Since you will be frying in batches, this way you can ensure all the mushroom pieces are crisp and ready at once.  Or, ahem, your spouse & friends can just devour them as you go.

Use the “wet hand, dry hand” method to batter the mushrooms.  Working in batches, use your left hand for the egg wash, coating each mushroom piece thoroughly.  Then plop a few pieces at a time into the breadcrumbs, using your right hand to press down on all sides and thickly coat each piece.

I recommend you bread all the mushrooms ahead of time, so you can wash your hands and focus on frying.  Drop in a single sacrificial mushroom to assess the oil temperature, adjust as necessary, and then fry in batches, turning once, until the mushroom pieces are an even, medium-brown.  Drain the mushrooms on paper towels, then tuck into the oven to keep warm.

Serve the mushrooms with dipping sauce.  If you plan to serve plain, sprinkle with a bit of sea salt.  Either way, they will go quickly!

for the dipping sauce:

½ cup soy sauce
¼ cup honey
2 T fresh ginger, minced
1 T rice wine or plum wine vinegar
1 tsp. sesame oil

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl.  Leftovers will keep indefinitely in the fridge, and also work for wanton dipping, glazing meatballs, adding to soups, etc.

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MARINATED EGGPLANT

I’m afraid I don’t have anything profound to say about this eggplant.

You of course should know that it tastes great, is easy to make and healthy, and goes perfectly with the rosemary flatbreads from earlier in the week.  And I recommend you try it!  I just can’t come up with anything further, I fear, because I just saw video of my father for the first time since he died.  I’m totally out of words.

The footage is from the Father-Daughter Dinner Dance my all-girls’ high school throws every year; after the meal, each father gets up and gives a tribute to his daughter and there’s nary a dry eye in the house.

Frankly, I had forgotten this video existed, but somehow it cropped up and so tonight I slid it into our antique VHS player (seriously how bulky do these things seem now?), and there he was, with dimensions, with his beard and his accent that I fear I am forgetting, telling me that he loves me and is proud of me, smiling the smile I inherited.  The most amazing gift—to see him, to have him there, as if he might step out of the screen at any moment and come sit down with me, shoving aside my piles of used Kleenex.

I want to be okay in my life; I don’t want to live looking backwards, angry and wondering.  After all, I am bound to encounter much more death in this lifetime, including my own.  But just when I think I’ve reached some place, that grief and I may have made some kind of arrangement, it just flat-out breaks my heart all over again.

I don’t ever want to stop missing him, and I do not think that I will.

MARINATED EGGPLANT
adapted from Gourmet
While I love this dish, it doesn’t keep very well, so make only as much as you think you’ll need.

ingredients:

3-4 thin Italian or Asian eggplants, sliced into thin rounds
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
¼ cup mint, chopped
2 T capers
olive oil
red wine vinegar

oven temp: broiler

Toss the eggplants in a bit of olive oil, then arrange in one layer on a baking sheet or sheets.  Broil for about 10 minutes, turning once to brown on both sides.

Once the eggplant is out of the oven, stir together with the herbs, capers, and a few tablespoons of both olive oil & vinegar both.  Add a bit of salt & pepper to taste, then let the eggplant marinate for 15-20 minutes.

Serve with flatbread, pita, or crackers.

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