Oh friends, I am sorry. It’s been over three weeks since my last post.
Life is full and busy and fast-moving for all of us, to be sure. We find ourselves at the end of another month, wondering “How can it be almost April already?” or “When did this baby get so BIG?”
Still, when I scan back over the days since I last wrote, there are points of distinct aliveness that stand out from the blur, occasions when time seemed to slow down a little and I let myself slip into it. For me, these moments often involve food—both preparing it and eating it—and there is a magic to this, I think, a kind of blessing.
We are trying to teach our son about daily pleasures, trying to teach him that enjoyment in the every day is a key component to a happy life. In turn, he is teaching us, showing us how to see things through his new eyes—tonight, as he relished a crunchy piece of bok choy, grown by friends and charred on the grill, I thought about how often I take it for granted when food tastes good, feels good, is good. It’s no small thing, really, as Shiv reminds me when he joyfully chirps, chews, raises an eyebrow, urgently grunts, leans forward, and opens his mouth for more.
I have heard from a lot of you who found meaning and resonance in my last post. Thank you, as always, for reading, and for generously allowing me the room to share what’s really true and present for me. I am humbled to know that what I said made a difference for some of you.
Last thing: my essay, “Sonata,” was published this month in Trop Magazine. This is one of the pieces included in my forthcoming collection, and it was also previously published on this site. For those of you who may have missed it or would like to read it again, here’s the link.
RED BEANS & RICE
adapted from Gloria Glenney
I know we’ve all got our eye on spring, but should you be experiencing a little last-gasp-of-winter cold snap around your parts, I highly recommend these here red beans and rice.
1 lb. kidney beans, soaked overnight
1 ham bone OR 2 smoked ham hocks OR ¼ lb smoked ham, diced
2-3 slices bacon, sliced
½ lb. sausage of your choice, sliced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 bell pepper, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1 T Worcestershire sauce
1 T salt
1 tsp. oregano
1 tsp. thyme
½ tsp. ground black pepper
¼ – ½ tsp. cayenne (depending on your taste)
few dashes Tabasco
2 quarts chicken stock, preferably homemade (I used the last of my post-Thanksgiving turkey stock, because I needed to do something with it, and it worked just fine)
In the bottom of a heavy pot, cook the bacon first to render out the fat. If using diced ham, add it to the bacon and allow it to brown a bit. Add the onions and garlic and cook for just a minute or two before tossing in the sliced sausage, celery, and bell pepper. (If using ham bone or ham hocks, brown them in the pot briefly before the next step).
Once the vegetables have softened, pour in the stock, beans, and all seasonings. (At this point, if you’d like to transfer everything to a slow cooker, you can.) Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until beans are soft and creamy. On the stovetop, budget around 2-2 ½ hours. In the slow cooker, my beans were perfect after 4 hours on “high.” Remove bay leaves before serving.
Serve with white rice and garnish with green onion.
Lauren Bernstein and I attended the same high school in Memphis; thanks to the magic of Facebook, we’ve been able to keep up with each other’s lives over the last few years. I have watched in admiration as she and her husband Justin (see picture at the end of this post) quit their jobs in New York and joined the Peace Corps, heading to Morocco to teach English.
You can follow Lauren and Justin’s adventures in teaching, travel, and adapting to a brand new culture on Lauren’s blog, Life is calling. Her pictures (especially of food!) are wonderful, as are her explanations of the sights they’ve seen and the work they are doing.
Below, Lauren talks about what it’s like to cook in Morocco, as opposed to cooking back home, and shares a recipe for Moroccan-style white beans and homemade tortillas. When we made the white beans, we served them with this recipe for Moroccan-style roasted vegetables. Many thanks to Lauren for taking the time to share with us! –NJM
Last week, my husband and I decided to make dinner for our family who hosted us when we first moved into our community in Morocco. We wanted to make an American-style meal, so we settled on fajitas and apple pie. As I undertook the process of planning and making the meal, I thought back upon how much has changed in my cooking since I came to this country. For fun, I compared the process that went into this meal to what it would have been in America:
– Research and choose recipes, make list of ingredients needed .
– Go to the grocery store and buy everything I need: pre-packaged chicken breasts, vegetables, pre-made pie crust (if I’m being lazy), bag of tortillas, some packaged pre-shredded cheese.
– Cut up and saute meat and vegetables, prepare pie and set it to bake at the oven’s standard temperature, set the timer, walk away and have a glass of wine!
– Take tortillas and cheese out of their packages when ready.
– Research and choose recipes, make list of ingredients needed .
– Figure out what ingredients are actually available here (no brown sugar for the apple pie!) and adjust with substitutions.
– Make sure I know how to say or write everything that I need in Moroccan Arabic (still don’t know how to ask for nutmeg, though I don’t think I could find it here anyway!).
– Go to the local market and visit each individual stall to get what I need: the onion guy, the peppers guy, the cheese guy, the spices guy, the egg guy, the oil guy (squeezed fresh from olives!), the flour guy, the butter guy… and let’s not forget the chicken guy. I choose my chicken and they slaughter and clean it for me.
– Wash and clean the chicken to remove excess feathers. Take out the innards (most of which I am still unsure of what they are exactly). Then break down the chicken and cut into small pieces to be sautéed.
– Prepare pie crust (from scratch) and refrigerate.
– Prepare tortillas (from scratch) and put aside.
– Cut up and sauté meat and vegetables and grate cheese.
– Prepare apple pie, put in oven and check it obsessively because the oven here doesn’t have regulated temperatures and I have yet to get it totally right yet. The top burns a little but easy enough to scrape off.
Total meal prep in America: 4 hours
Total meal prep in Morocco: 10 hours
As you can see, it’s quite a different experience! Each meal here is a challenge in learning how to plan, buy, and prepare foods in a totally new way. But I have already learned some valuable lessons that I will bring back with me when I return to the U.S.:
* Food tastes better fresh! None of this pre-packaged nonsense. Make the below tortilla recipe and you will never eat the packaged ones again
* Knowing where my meat comes from: You always hear in the U.S. about being separated from the source of your food but you don’t realize it until you see it the other way. While it’s tough to deal with an animal being killed in front of you for food, it makes you think much harder about what you choose to eat.
* Less meat, more beans and vegetables: In Morocco, meat is a lot more expensive than most other food items and families tend to eat a lot of beans instead. I have rediscovered my love for white beans and I will never be the same!
* New methods and tools for cooking: I am going to single-handedly bring the pressure cooker back into fashion in the U.S… why more people don’t use it, I don’t know! But every Moroccan household uses it and it is truly amazing.
In my cooking experiments here, two of my most favorite recipes have been some of the simplest. I hope you enjoy the below recipes; when you make them, think about how your experiences might be different if you were cooking somewhere unfamiliar or in a new way. And be happy you don’t have to learn how to say each ingredient in Arabic!
MOROCCAN-STYLE WHITE BEANS
Adapted from About.com
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
This recipe calls for dry beans and uses a pressure cooker (I told you I am bringing the pressure cooker back into style!). You should soak your beans in water overnight before you cook them. And if you happen to buy them from a big sack in the market like I do, you may need to spend an hour or so pulling out the twigs and rocks and thoroughly cleaning them!
1lb. dry white haricot or Cannellini beans, soaked overnight and drained
3 ripe tomatoes, grated or diced
1 medium onion, grated or diced
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 T chopped fresh parsley
2 T chopped fresh cilantro
1 T salt
2 tsp paprika
2 tsp cumin
2 teaspoons ground ginger
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup olive oil
2 quarts water
Mix all ingredients in a pressure cooker. Cover and cook on pressure over medium heat for about 40 minutes, or until the beans are tender. (Note: “On pressure” here means that you start timing it once the top on the pressure cooker starts spinning around). Run the cooker under cold water before opening the lid carefully. If the beans are still submerged in sauce, cook uncovered for a bit to reduce the liquids until the sauce is thick (just keep an eye on it to make sure that the beans don’t burn). Adjust the seasoning if desired, and serve.
Editor’s note: If you don’t have a pressure cooker or don’t want to use it, I recommend using a slow-cooker instead. You can sauté the onion & garlic in a saucepan on the stovetop first, then toss them, along with the rest of the ingredients, into the slow cooker and let them cook on “high” for several hours, or until the beans have reached the desired tenderness. You can also cook in a covered pot on the stove top for several hours, but the convenience of a slow-cooker means you can walk away while the beans cook!
Adapted from Peace Corps Morocco’s “Kitchen Guide,” provided to all new volunteers
Yield: 8-10 small (6-inch) tortillas, or 4-6 large (8-10 inch) tortillas
Editor’s note: We have also, in my house, become obsessed with homemade tortillas. I tend to make mine with lard, using this recipe, but when cooking for vegetarian/non-pork-eating friends, I plan to use Lauren’s recipe below.
2 cups flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder (optional)
1 tsp salt
2 tsp olive or vegetable oil
¾ cup warm water
Sift flour, baking powder (optional), and salt together (for larger tortillas, omit baking powder, which will keep them from stretching). Work in oil and mix well. Slowly add water and knead until dough is springy. Divide dough into 8 balls for small tortillas, or 6 balls for large tortillas, and place on a clean surface; cover and let rest for 20-30 minutes. After the dough has rested, one at a time place the dough ball on a lightly floured surface, pat it out to about a 4” circle, and then roll out from the center to create thin circles (6” across for small tortillas, 8-10” across for large tortillas). Bake on a hot un-greased griddle until speckled brown on both sides (keep a close eye on them or they can burn). If tortilla puffs while cooking, just press it down.
Let tortillas cool before storing in an airtight container or plastic bag in the refrigerator.
Lauren’s note: I made this recently with 1cup semolina flour and 1 cup regular white flour and it has a less floury, more corny taste (but not super corny). I also varied the thickness of the tortilla when I rolled it out, and I found that I liked them really thin. The more you play with it the more you’ll love them!
Listen, it’s time for some quinoa patties. You know, quinoa—the super-grain that’s been having its moment in the sun for quite some time now? We at my house are quite obsessed with it; I buy giant 10-lb. bags of organic quinoa at Costco more frequently than you might imagine.
My mom is the one who turned me on to quinoa. She fell in love with it to such an extent that she even adapted many Indian recipes that normally call for rice to be made with the nutty grain. When you think about how committed we South Asians are to our rice, this is saying something.
2012 is shaping up to be a big year for my mom; she turns sixty-five this year, which means she can retire from her long and successful career as a special education teacher. She is planning to put her house on the market this spring, and when it sells, move down here to Houston.
My parents and I moved into said house when I was a mere eighteen months old—apparently I scared the dickens out of mom by hiding in the empty kitchen cabinets while she unpacked! I also remember laying down on a pallet of blankets in the hallway that connects the kitchen and dining room, because my mom was up late cooking and, sleepy as I was, I didn’t want to miss anything. That house has seen countless giggling girl sleepovers, hosted huge Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day feasts, watched me do hours of homework (and spend a near-equal amount of hours on the phone—remember how much we used to talk on the phone?), and was the last place I saw my father alive, happy, and vibrant. There’s so much memory and meaning wrapped up in that house that the idea of my mom not living there anymore is a little hard to wrap my mind around.
Thing is, I want my mom not to live there anymore; her moving has been the plan for the last five or so years, and I am so ready for her to live down the street from me and Jill so I can see her EVERY. DAMN. DAY. It’s just a little bit wild to realize that something I’ve imagined and thought about happening somewhere off in the future is here now.
Whatever milestones you are anticipating this year, or the ones that may crop up and surprise you, I wish everyone a very prosperous and peaceful year! If you need a little break from heavy holiday foods, give these quinoa patties a try—they’re awfully good for you and surprisingly delicious.
QUINOA-BLACK BEAN PATTIES
adapted from 101 Cookbooks
I gave my quinoa patties a Southwestern twist, but the original recipe calls for kale instead of beans, feta instead of queso fresco, and completely different herbs. You can make all kinds of changes/substitutions to these patties; as long as you get to the right consistency in the end, they should cook up well and taste great.
Once cooled, the patties will keep for several days in the fridge and for 2-3 months in the freezer–so great for when you need a healthy dinner but don’t feel like cooking!
2 cups quinoa, cooked, which will yield about 2 ½ cups once cooked (I like to cook my quinoa in broth for added flavor)
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup cooked black beans
½ cup bread crumbs
½ cup minced onion (I love red, but if you don’t, use yellow or white)
½ cup queso fresco, crumbled
¼ cup cilantro, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
Saute the onion and garlic in a bit of olive oil until translucent. Set aside to cool. Combine the quinoa, eggs, beans, bread crumbs, cilantro, cumin, & salt. Mix well before adding the cooled onion and garlic. Allow the mixture to sit for a few minutes before gently adding in the cheese.
Your mixture should, at this point, be wet enough to clump together in your hands but dry enough to have some structure. If you need to, adjust the consistency by adding more bread crumbs or another egg. You can also use flour, water, or broth. Err on the moist side, as this will prevent your patties from becoming too dry when cooked.
You can cook the patties one of two ways—in the oven or in a skillet. I’ve tried both ways; the pan allowed for more browning, but the oven makes it easier to cook a large batch.
For the oven, heat to 400°. Form the patties to your desired size, making each one about 1-inch thick. Use a little olive oil to grease the baking sheet before sliding the patties into the oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes on one side, then flip and bake another 5 minutes to brown the other side.
In the skillet, heat some olive oil over medium heat. Add as many patties as you can fit and still be able to flip them—cook for 8-10 minutes, or until the bottoms have browned. Flip the patties and cook for another 7-8 minutes on the other side.
We served our patties with some sliced avocado and sour cream.
I’m holding off on the holidays.
This is the last week of school—exams began today—and the tradition in our family has naturally adjusted over the years to fit with the end-of-the-semester. I do my holiday baking the weekend before exams (no grading to do yet!) and mail out packages during the week (shorter school days). Then, once school is officially out, Jill and I go together to pick out our tree, decorate the house, and get festive.
Though this timing originated from convenience, I think I would choose it even if it weren’t necessary. It’s nice to have a boundary line that says—here, okay NOW we will think about Hanukkah and Christmas and New Year’s, now we will mail out our cards, mull the cider, and watch the claymation “Rudolph” cartoon (the little elf-who-wants-to-be-a-dentist is Jill’s favorite). To condense the celebration into a week or ten days helps ensure that it is, in fact, celebratory, and not obligatory. I am deliberately keeping myself from my Christmas station on Pandora until the 17th.
Maybe that sounds too contrived, and I’m certainly not trying to be a Grinch about getting into the spirit; for those who celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, the season of Advent has already begun, with its exhortation to prepare and make ready. Hanukkah hasn’t yet begun, but I’ve already fried some latkes, I confess, and made my first ever batch of rugelach (which, I’m pleased to report, went over very well with my Jewish colleagues). I’m the last one to argue for less holiday spirit; what I’m really about is less holiday STUFF. Sometimes a limit can be a good thing.
APPLE BAKED OATMEAL
adapted from Sprouted Kitchen, original recipe by Heidi Swanson in Super Natural Every Day
My only “catering” gig to date is taking breakfast treats for my fellow middle school faculty members each Monday. In August, I made the Sprouted Kitchen version of this baked oatmeal recipe, which calls for blueberries and almonds and uses maple syrup as a sweetener, doubling the quantities so I could fill twelve mason jars. I got rave reviews, even from folks who said they normally didn’t like oatmeal!
If you don’t have tiny mason jars on hand, you can also make one big baked oatmeal in a square baking pan—just plan to increase the baking time by 15-20 minutes. Great for feeding a crowd either way.
I knew I wanted to do the baked oatmeals again in the fall and thought that a version with apples might be nice. And it was! Now I’m thinking cranberry-orange-walnut might need to happen in January…needless to say, this recipe takes very well to all kinds of adjustments. Plus, you can bake them the night before and just re-heat in the morning.
2 small Granny smith apples
1-2 T sugar
½ tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground cardamom
squeeze of lemon juice
2 cups old fashioned oats
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. sea salt
2 ½ cups whole milk
3 T melted butter
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup toasted chopped pecans
¼ cup turbinado or demerrara sugar
pan: 6 half-pint mason jars OR 1 8” square baking pan
Peel and core the apples, then dice—small if baking in jars, medium if baking in a pan. Toss the apples in a non-reactive bowl with the sugar, cinnamon, cardamom, & lemon juice. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, whisk or stir together the dry ingredients. Melt the butter in a glass measuring cup or bowl. Pour a tiny bit of melted butter into the bottom of each jar; if using a baking pan, pour about half the melted butter and swirl to coat the bottom and edges.
Divide the apples evenly among the jars, or spread them all along the bottom of the pan. Top with the oatmeal mixture; if using jars, leave ½ inch to 1 inch of headroom at the top of each jar.
Whisk the milk and vanilla into the remaining butter. Pour a little less than ½ cup of liquid into each jar; if using baking pan, pour the liquid slowly over the oats, moving in a circle to coat evenly. Place the uncovered jars on a baking sheet before sliding into the oven.
Bake the jars for 25-30 minutes, the baking pan for 35-45*. The top of the oatmeal should be brown but still moist. When ready to serve, top with nuts & sugar.
*If you plan to reheat and serve the next day, I recommend under-baking the oatmeal by at least 5 minutes. Let cool completely, then cover (using jar lids or foil) and store in the fridge overnight. Uncover and reheat in a 350° oven for 15-20 minutes.
Finally, finally, there is a nip in the air around here.
Never thought I’d see the day that I’d cheer 86 degrees as “cool weather,” but I’m not complaining. After months of brutally hot temperatures, we are opening our living room windows, throwing the ball for the dog in the backyard once again, and wearing our cowboy boots instead of flip-flops.
And, of course, there’s a whole crop of autumn foods that I can’t wait to make and eat as the temperature (hopefully) continues to drop: apple things, cinnamon things, bread-y things, braised and roasted things.
In the meantime, here’s a “bridge” meal of sorts—fall-esque without stealing the thunder from true cold-weather dishes. Bonus? It’s the kind of vegetarian dish that my carnivorous spouse will happily eat, without missing the meat too much.
adapted from Bon Appétit, January 2010
We’ve gotten really into quinoa lately—which is a really crunchy-granola-Birkenstock-Prius-thing for me to say—unless I add that we are lately cooking our organic quinoa (giant bag at Costco for cheap!) to go alongside the fresh doves that Jill is bringing home from the field on weekend nights.
In any case, we have been substituting quinoa for all kinds of other things: rice, noodles, and couscous, with great results. So when I saw this quinoa recipe in an old magazine, I knew I wanted to try it.
The original recipe calls for the use of fresh thyme, but I didn’t have any on hand, so I subbed in scallions. The use of thyme would, of course, be consistent with the more traditional risotto method/flavors.
1 cup quinoa
2 cups chicken stock, vegetable broth, or water
1 cup chopped onion OR ½ cup chopped shallot
1 cup dry white wine
1-2 cloves garlic
2 cups sliced assorted mushrooms (shiitake, crimini, and/or white button)
chopped fresh scallion, for garnish (optional)
grated Parmesan cheese
olive oil, butter
Bring the stock, broth, or water to warm in a medium saucepan. In a separate saucepan, melt 1 tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Add the quinoa and toast the grains, stirring frequently until aromatic. Pour in the warm stock and bring the quinoa + liquid mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover the pot, and cook until the quinoa has sprouted and the water has been absorbed, ~12 minutes.
While the quinoa is cooking, heat 1 T each oil & butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion or shallot and sauté until translucent. Add the garlic and stir briefly before adding the mushrooms and thyme. Toss in some more butter if you feel like it—this is supposed to imitate a risotto, after all—and cook until the mushrooms are tender, ~5 minutes. Add the wine and increase the heat to medium-high; stir the mixture until the wine has reduced and what’s left in the skillet looks syrupy, ~2 minutes.
Add the quinoa to the mushroom mixture, tossing in the scallions, if using. Season with salt and pepper (but keep the Parmesan in mind when salting). Serve with plenty of Parmesan on the side.
Things I Have Learned:
It feels good to be the one to shave your spouse’s head when her hair starts falling out in chemotherapy-induced clumps. You’ll come up with (new) goofy little nicknames for her in her baldness, and—cliché as it is—you will find her as beautiful as ever.
It also feels good to go to the gym, or for a run, or for a bike ride. These things will, in fact, seem like the very things keeping you sane, and for the power and ability of your body, you will be grateful. After a particularly excellent workout, you may well feel like you can fly.
When you get up early Saturday morning in San Francisco while attending a work conference and go for a run from the condo you and your colleagues are renting to the waterfront where the seagulls squawk cheekily at you, the only folks you will encounter are pot-smoking bums and old Chinese ladies walking their poodles, plus a couple of fanny-pack-wearing tourists. You’ll be able to smell the bean paste they’re making in Chinatown, to be stuffed into little balls of sesame-seed dotted and fried dough, like the ones you had the day before.
A friend will visit for the weekend and surprise you with a sonogram photograph so that you’ll squeal to wake the dead, serve her and the tiny one a big ole mess of breakfast and be so, so, so happy.
You will conclude over and over again that there isn’t any good language for anything. Because you want to tell the people in your life just how much you love them and how much they make your life better, but you can’t really manage with language and you’re afraid you’ll freak them out with trying, so you offer hugs and hand-written notes instead.
All of your plans will be laid out as close to perfectly as possible, because hey! You’re really good at planning, but then something like a low blood cell count will change all of your plans in an instant, but instead of that freaking you the heck out, like it normally would, you discover that it doesn’t really matter to you anymore. You decide it must be a result of that thing called “perspective.”
Your mom is coming to town soon and you can’t wait to see her. Because nothing will be more comforting than her presence and nothing will ever, ever taste as good as food that she makes.
Fairly straightforward but possibly my favorite way to consume kale. We Indians know how to make vegetables taste good without a ton of added fat. Go us!
2 bunches curly green kale
approx. 2 lb. red potatoes
a few sprinkles asafetida
1 tsp. whole cumin
1 tsp. each, ground cumin & coriander
pinch (or more, if you like) red pepper flakes
salt to taste
Prep the kale by rinsing it and stripping the leafy parts off of the middle rib. Chop the kale into small pieces. Peel and chunk the potatoes.
Pour a good tablespoon or two of oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. When the oil is hot, toss in the whole cumin seeds and let them sizzle a bit before sprinkling in the asafetida.
Swirl oil and spices around in the pot before tossing in the kale and potatoes—be careful, they will splatter! Cover and let the kale wilt a bit before adding the rest of the spices: ground cumin & coriander, red pepper flakes, and a good teaspoon of salt.
Cook, covered, over medium heat until the potatoes are done. Then uncover the pot and turn the heat down to medium-low in order to evaporate any water. You want the sabji to be quite dry; it’s done when the vegetables begin to stick a bit to the bottom and sides of the pot.
Please allow me to begin with the requisite disclaimers: I am but one Indian girl. I do not represent all Indian people everywhere and I am by NO MEANS an expert on Indian food or cooking. India is home to twenty-eight states, twice as many languages, and innumerable incarnations of what “Indian food” can look like. Not to mention the fact that we Indians have disseminated ourselves all across the globe, mish-mashing our food cultures with the British, American, South African, Malaysian, etc.
Still…when I put out the call the other day to see what folks wanted to see more of on the blog, Indian food was the definite winner. So I am giving in! “The Food of My People” series starts today and will run every Tuesday for the next few months. Don’t worry, for those of you utterly uninterested in making Indian food at home (no offense taken), “regular” fare will continue to show up every Friday.
The Indian recipes I’m going to post will be a total hodge-podge of regions and technique, utterly subjective and reflective of me. They will also be fantastically delicious and adhere to the BJG standard of unfussy food OR fussy food that’s worth it. I hope to expose you to more Indian “home cooking,” the kind of thing you can’t get in a restaurant and can pretty easily make at home (lots of those restaurant dishes aren’t very authentic or simple to make). If you have any requests, throw them out in the comments or send me an email. I’ll do my best to accommodate them!
One of the main things that can make cooking Indian seem intimidating are the seemingly exhaustive lists of unfamiliar ingredients; even I think it’s asking a lot for folks to go out and buy twenty spice bottles just to try one recipe. For the purposes of this series, I’m listing some essentials and extras, the latter of which will serve those of you who’d like to build your Indian food repertoire. If you’re uncertain about how frequently you’ll use these ingredients, I recommend you buy in small quantities (at a store which sells in bulk is a good choice.) For the extras, get yourself to an Indian or Asian grocery store! They can help you find what you’re looking for and the prices will be much cheaper.
• fresh garlic
• fresh ginger
• whole cumin seeds
• ground cumin
• ground coriander
• ground red mirchi (chili), for heat
• fresh cilantro
• cumin seeds
• fennel seeds
• fenugreek seeds
• garam masala
• mustard seeds
• sambar powder
You’ll find that this recipe, like most of the rest I’ll be posting, makes a pretty good quantity of food. That’s because I DON’T KNOW HOW TO MAKE SMALL AMOUNTS OF INDIAN FOOD. It’s like, contrary to what I believe in. You know? Ethnic mothers who stuff you full at the table, then send you out the door with a plastic grocery bag full of old sour cream and Cool Whip containers, stuffed with leftovers? I’m totally turning into one.
GREEN BEAN & SWEET POTATO SABJI
Serves 4 as a side, with leftovers
“Sabji” just means vegetable dish and this one is a favorite. Simple and satisfying, this dish is a riff off of my mom’s original, which she made with white potatoes. I personally like the way the flavor of the sweet potatoes plays off of the rich spices in this dish; serve it as an accompaniment to a meat entrée or as the main course itself, with store-bought naan or pita bread.
This recipe calls for just a few tablespoons of tomato paste, so opening a whole can of it is a pain. I am in love with these tubes of paste from Amore. Use what you need, then store the rest neatly in your fridge.
• 4 medium-to-large sweet potatoes
• 1 pound green beans
• 1/4 cup fresh ginger, peeled & minced
• 1 T black mustard seeds
• 1 T sambar powder
• 2 T tomato paste
• ¼ teaspoon asfoetida (optional)
• ½ cup water
• 3 T canola oil
Prep the vegetables: peel & dice the sweet potatoes into roughly 1-inch chunks, then wash & remove the ends from the green beans, chopping them into inch-long pieces.
In a large, heavy-bottomed pan (with a fitted lid), heat the oil over medium-high heat. After 3-4 minutes, the oil should be quite hot but not smoking. Throw in the mustard seeds & sprinkle in the asfoetida. It’s essential to heat these two ingredients at the outset and let them get very hot or they will make the whole dish taste bitter.
Turn down the heat to medium; remove the pan from the heat, then add ginger. Return to the burner and cook until the ginger begins to soften, adding the sweet potatoes, sambar powder, water, & 1 T salt. Toss to ensure that the potatoes are well-coated with the spices.
Cover the dish, turn the heat down to medium-low, and allow the sweet potatoes to cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Once you can “smush” a sweet potato with the back of your cooking spoon, add the green beans and cook for another 8-10 minutes, tossing in more water if necessary.
Once the green beans are bright and cooked to desired tenderness, fold in tomato paste to bind the dish. Taste the dish for salt & season accordingly.
Around here we say, “unfussy food from a fun-loving kitchen.”* Essentially, what that means to me is you can make great food at home without slaving away for hours or blowing your budget on fancy ingredients. The kitchen is a place where we should all feel free to make mistakes and make a mess, to play and focus, to relax and to express. If it isn’t fun, or at the very least rewarding, we won’t do it.
To me, there’s no inherent virtue in fussy. You know, three different curlique garnishes, half-a-dozen specialty ingredients, recipes that could fill a dishwasher with bowls and dishes just from the prep work? I don’t do fussy for fussy’s sake. But if the fuss is going to get me something, like crave-able onion rings, light, buttery popovers, or delicate almond cookies sandwiched with jam and chocolate, then I’m totally in.
I first tried making my own stocks and broths in graduate school because I was on a serious budget, and it was the frugal thing to do. Of course, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that once I started making my own versions, I wouldn’t be able to buy the pre-packaged stuff anymore. Hours of slow-simmered goodness from your own stove, it’ll spoil you.
It’ll also make you feel worthy of your grandmother or [insert personal kitchen icon here]. Making homemade stock, which you can then use in homemade soups and stews, is the ultimate I CAN DO THIS moment. Make your own stock and see if you don’t feel like a bona fide, authentic, oh-so-capable blue jean gourmet!
Oh, and have I mentioned how easy it is? All you really need is an extended period of time at home so you can let the stock simmer and check on it from time to time. Four to six hours later, you’ll have a house that smells like heaven (warning: this can drive dogs craaaaaazy) and stock that’s richer and more flavorful than anything you can buy in a box or a can.
Of course, if you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want some milk to go along with it, and if you decide to make stock, you’re going to want to cook with at least some of it ASAP (freezing the rest for future use, of course). So I’m including an easy, hearty dinner soup recipe that will serve your new stock well.
Should you wish to go all the way with the “fussy but it’s worth it” theme, might I suggest you tackle the infamous Boeuf Bourguignon? Made famous by the fabulous Julia Child and then re-famous by Julie & Julia fever this year, it really is something you ought to make at least ONCE in your culinary lifetime. I made some this summer for Jill when I discovered she’d never had it. She’s still raving about it, I tell you.
More interested in chicken, chicken stock, & chicken soup? Don’t worry, we gotcha covered.
*Coming soon to a kitchen apron near you! Yes, really. Stay tuned.
To make your own beef stock, you can simply buy soup bones from a butcher or save the bones from roasts & steaks as you cook. If you are working with bones that have already been cooked, you can use a stovetop method: simply sauté all of the same vegetables listed below in a stock pot with some olive oil until soft & fragrant. Then add the water, bones, & seasonings.
4 lb. beef soup bones (uncooked)
2 red onions, quartered
3 carrots, chunked
3 ribs celery, chunked
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled & smashed
2 T tomato paste
1-2 bay leaves
fresh thyme or rosemary
salt & pepper
optional: splash of red wine
Place the vegetables on the bottom of a large roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil, then place the soup bones on top. Season everything liberally with salt & pepper.
Roast in the oven for 25-30 minutes, then transfer the contents of the roasting pan (plus any delicious, accumulated juices) to a large stock pot. Fill the pot with as much water is needed to cover everything, somewhere around 8 cups.
Toss in the herbs, tomato paste, & red wine (if using). Bring the mixture up to a boil, skimming off any foam that initially rises to the top. then let the stock simmer gently for at least four hours, allowing it to reduce.
Taste-test the stock before deciding it’s through. When you’re ready, strain the stock & save the meat from the soup bones for your dog or another purpose.
If you wish to skim the fat from your stock, the easiest way to do so is to refrigerate the finished stock in a large plastic container. When it’s nice and cool, the fat solids will rise to the top, making them easier to removed.
Me personally? I like fat. It tastes delicious.
Once thoroughly cooled, beef stock will keep well in the freezer for several months.
ITALIAN SAUSAGE SOUP
Inspiration for this soup comes from Jill’s mother—my version is a bit different, but like hers, it’s hearty, easy to make, & goes wonderfully with a pan of cornbread or sliced loaf of crusty bread. Like most soups, this one just gets better after a few days in the refrigerator!
The more flavorful the sausage, the more flavorful the soup. Splurge, if you can, on well-crafted product, preferably fresh sausage from a grocery counter (as opposed to something frozen or packaged wholesale). A tip—if you are a fan of parmesan cheese, save the rind! I always add them to my soups, especially this one, and they impart excellent flavor.
6 cups beef stock
1 lb. Italian Sausage (hot or mild—the choice is yours!)
1 onion, sliced
2-3 cloves garlic
2 bunches fresh or 1 package frozen spinach
2 cans chickpeas, drained
fresh (1 T each) or dried (1 tsp. each) basil & oregano
salt & pepper (1 tsp. each)
Slice or crumble the sausage into a tall, heavy-bottomed pot. Turn heat to medium and brown the sausage, in two batches if necessary. Transfer the browned sausage to a bowl with a slotted spoon.
Without cleaning the pot, add a bit of olive oil and cook the onions and garlic until translucent. If you’re using frozen spinach, you’ll need to thaw & drain it while the onions cook. If you’re using fresh, wash & dry it well before adding it to the onions & garlic, allowing the leaves to cook down quite a bit.
At this point, return the sausage to the pot along with the rest of the ingredients: stock, chickpeas, herbs, salt, pepper, & frozen spinach (if using). Bring the soup to a boil, then simmer on low heat for at least thirty minutes before checking for flavor and adjusting salt, if necessary.
Serve hot. Feel free to grate some parmesan on top—but only if you want to.
I cut my hair short in high school, for many reasons and for no reason at all. Convenience, defiance, sophistication, some combination thereof. It ranged from ear-length to pixie-short until I buzzed it all off my freshman year of college. Head-shaving was the social experiment that I undertook with my fortuitously-assigned college roommate Rebecca. Bolder and defiant than I could conceive of being at that point in my life, Rebecca was my first true friend on campus (and remains one of my favorite people on the planet, I might add). Shaving our heads was her idea.
Bless my poor father’s heart—he always harbored visions of me with long, flowing tresses like the hip-shaking heroines of the Bollywood movies he loved to watch. He was forever making remarks that he found funny but I found annoying, encouraging me to “grow it out!” and “not so short!” But to my surprise and perhaps disappointment, he handled my shaved head remarkably well, voicing no critiques and even silencing my mother who clearly thought I had lost my mind.
Though I never shaved it again–
a) I’m not cut out to live a renegade lifestyle
b) my head is oddly shaped
c) lack of hair dampened my flirting potential, which truly affected my quality of life
–once my hair grew back, I continued to style it short. I had no reason to wear it longer and plenty of reasons to keep it cropped: I lived in hot climates (Memphis, then Houston, then Tucson), I like a low-maintenance morning routine, I had been told once or twice that I looked like the Indian Halle Berry. Why mess with a good thing?
In my first semester of graduate school, my parents proposed a trip to India for my cousin’s wedding. She was three years my junior and had become engaged to a man that she met herself at another family wedding and secretly “dated” before coming home and suggesting to her parents that he might be a good match for her. I rather liked this schema: it was spunky and made the prospect of braving a wedding (at which I would be the noticeably older, unmarried, American cousin) far more palatable. Not to mention, I had not been to India, the country of my parents’ birth, in over a decade, and my father and I had only traveled there together once before, when I was an infant.
A few months before we were scheduled to leave for India, my father asked me to grow out my hair.
“Nito,” he said, after he had so cleverly taken me out to lunch in Memphis, plied me with pulled pork barbecue and worked me into quite the food coma, “What if you grew your hair for a little while? Please don’t cut it before we go to India. It will just look better, your relatives will like to see it, not so short.”
I knew that my relatives weren’t the only ones who would like to see my hair “not so short,” but refrained from saying so.
“But doesn’t the nose ring count for anything?” I asked him, mostly teasing since I had pierced it on a whim in college, not out of any deep-seated cultural agenda.
“Maybe a five-point bonus,” he said, keeping the joke. “But your hair could look so nice!”
He said “could,” as in “doesn’t right now,” which I noticed but also choose to ignore. Instead, I decided to leave my hair untouched. After all, I had cut it for no particular reason, surely I could grow it out when it meant so much to my father?
“I’m going to cut it as soon as we get back, though, okay?”
“Okay,” he consented. “It’s your hair.”
My father died six weeks after we returned from India. Except for the occasional trim, I haven’t cut my hair since. I grow my hair for a dead man who carried his hair on his arms and his legs and his chest and his back, but not his head, curling and dark. He would be so pleased if he could see this hair. This hair, my hair, all the way down my back, long and flowing the way he always wanted.
Tomorrow, I’m having my first hair cut in nearly four years. Not an arbitrary cut, but one that will help mark my twenty-seventh birthday and which will result in an envelope full of my hair being mailed here. You see, my friend Rebecca and I have many things in common: we’re giant nerds, know more Disney song lyrics than we really ought to admit, have serious sweet tooths, and love to craft things with our hands. But the most powerful thing we share is the one we never counted on; losing a parent within nine months of each other.
Rebecca’s mom Karen fought an exhausting battle against cancer for two-and-a-half years, one of those terrifying up-and-down rides full of uncertainty and pain, loss and hope. My friend put her life on hold to tend her mother’s every need, exhibiting the kind of courage and relentlessness that humbles one who witnesses it. By the time Karen was diagnosed, right in the middle of our senior year of college, Rebecca had become my family and I, part of hers. My own father’s death very surprisingly interrupted the trajectory of things; who could have guessed that I would be the one to lose a parent first?
To this day it stuns me, how in the midst of their own sadness and grief, Rebecca and her parents tended to me so unselfishly. I remember spending part of an afternoon at the hospital with them, not long after my father had died and during a time along the cancer roller-coaster when chemo had stripped Karen’s head completely clean of hair. She had wigs, but they didn’t come close to recreating her. The most realistic ones are, of course, the most expensive.
“Your hair is so beautiful, Nishta,” she told me, in a voice I’ll always be able to hear. “I wish I could wear it.”
“I’ll grow it out for you,” I told her. “I promise.”
Tomorrow I’ll be making good on my promise at the same time I let go of the hair that feels so connected to my father. I’m nervous, excited, and proud, and I promise to post some before-and-after pictures on Friday, provided that I don’t become totally incapacitated by all of the food I’m planning to eat between now and then (with a birthday today & Thanksgiving tomorrow, let’s hope I can even fit into my pants on Friday!)
I’m wishing all of you very festive and delicious Thanksgivings, full of people you love and lots of linger-worthy moments.
KAREN’S MEXICAN RICE & “GRAD SCHOOL” BLACK BEANS
Rebecca’s mama made the world’s best home-cooked Mexican rice, and she generously passed on her secret to me through her daughter: 1 ¾ cups liquid for every 1 cup of rice. Her ratio yields flavorful rice with the ideal texture and every time I make it (which is often), I picture her in my kitchen, proud that I’m working her recipe.
This rice makes an excellent accompaniment to so many things, but my favorite pairing is with a big pot of simple, vegetable-laced black beans. “Grad school food,” I call it, given how cheap it is to make, while at the same time being comforting and tasty. Feel free to swap in or out other vegetables such as chayote, fresh spinach, mushrooms, etc.
KAREN’S MEXICAN RICE
1 cup long-grain rice
1 ¾ cups vegetable or chicken broth
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 medium ripe tomatoes, diced or 1 can diced tomatoes, drained
1 T cumin
½ T chili powder
optional: sliced onion
In a large skillet with a fitted lid, sauté the garlic (plus onion, if you’re using it) in a few tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium heat. After two minutes, up the heat to medium-high and add the rice, toasting in the oil until the rice begins to brown and become fragrant, about 5 minutes.
Pour in the chicken or vegetable broth, then stir in the spices. Cover the mixture with the lid and allow it to come to a boil. Once the mixture boils, dial back he heat to medium-low, stirring periodically until the liquid is nearly gone and the rice is fully cooked.
Toss in the tomatoes and check the rice for salt, seasoning to your liking before serving hot.
“GRAD SCHOOL” BLACK BEANS
2 cans black beans, fully or partially drained*
1 can corn (or 2 ears’ worth of fresh corn, off the cob)
2 carrots, peeled & sliced ½-inch thick
1 red bell pepper, seeded & diced
1 ½ T cumin
1 T garlic powder
1 tsp. salt
optional: ½ or a whole jalapeño, minced
potential garnishes: grated cheese, sour cream, cilantro, salsa, raw onion, shredded cabbage
In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, sauté the bell peppers (jalapeño, if you’re using it) and carrots in a bit of vegetable oil until soft. Add the black beans, corn, & spices, then mix well.
Cover and turn down the heat to low. After 10-12 minutes, the beans should be heated through. Check for salt, then serve over rice.
*If you want drier beans, drain all the way. For a soupier effect, drain only one of the two cans.
Oh humble chicken, you have been much-abused. Penned-in, overfed, packaged on sterile Styrofoam and pumped full of watery broth, deboned, all-too-often rendered dry and tasteless.
It doesn’t have to be that way, of course.
Out of a whole set of reasons which are probably suited for a separate blog post, Jill and I made the decision over a year ago to stop buying conventionally raised & processed meats. I could say a lot, lot more about how and why we did this and how glad I am that we did, but for now I’ll just stick with: I’ll be damned if the chicken sure doesn’t taste a heckuva lot better. You know, like food you’d actually want to eat.
I also find it brings great satisfaction to use the bird in its entirety, from neck to wingtip. It’s what your grandma—well not my grandma, but someone’s grandma—would do. I want to be that grandma in the kitchen: thorough, efficient, capable, fearless.
So let’s reclaim the chicken in all of its juicy, satisfying glory! It’s amazing how well you can feed yourself and, if applicable, your family, with one respectfully-treated bird.
Today’s somewhat complicated post proceeds as follows:
Roast a chicken
Make chicken salad out of leftover breast meat
Make chicken stock using the carcass
Make chicken soup with the stock & any remaining chicken meat
You don’t have to go through all of these steps, of course; you can easily make the chicken salad or soup with a store-bought rotisserie chicken. But I hope at some point you will take a second look at the humble chicken, perhaps splurge on a free-range version, and spend some time in your kitchen with her, for she is so much more than the zebra-striped grilled breasts she’s so cruelly reduced to.
Okay. There are lots of fancy recommendations out there about tucking slivers of garlic under the skin or mixing up ten-ingredient spice rubs with which to coat the entire bird, and you can do all of that, I am not going to stop you.
But promise me you’ll try, at least once, the almost sinful simplicity and ease of roasting a chicken practically naked. Planning to eat it for dinner? Roast some potatoes and parsnips (drizzled in olive oil, seasoned with salt & pepper) underneath. Planning to reserve the meat for later? Roast carrots, onions, a few cloves of garlic, & celery underneath to transfer directly into a stock pan.
Take the chicken out of the refrigerator about an hour before you plan to cook it. Preheat your oven to 450°.
Using paper towels, dry the chicken extremely well, inside and out. Cover the skin liberally with salt (kosher, if possible) & pepper. You may stuff the breast with herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme, etc. and/or half of a lemon.
I like to roast my chicken this way: in the roasting pan go the potatoes and veggies. On top of those, I set a small rack (the same kind I use for cooling baked goods), and on top of that, I set the chicken. This allows for more even cooking than if the chicken sits directly on top of the vegetables.
You can truss the chicken, as you see I did here, but honestly I’ve roasted without and just don’t think it’s necessary. Roast the chicken, breast side up, for 45 minutes to an hour, depending upon the size of your bird.
Make sure you let the bird rest for 10-15 minutes before cutting into it. Divide the bird into breasts, legs, & wings, but watch out for eager kitchen visitors trying to snatch bites from over your shoulder (ahem, cough, Jill, cough cough).
CURRY CHICKEN SALAD
My version of the classic. You’ll see I like my chicken salad chunky, but feel free to chop everything into smaller pieces if you prefer. Tastes even better the next day.
2 cups cooked chicken breast meat, chopped
1 apple, peeled, cored, & small-diced (I used a McIntosh)
1 rib celery, small-diced
½ cup pecans, toasted & chopped
¼ cup red onion, small-diced
1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup Dijon mustard
1 tsp. curry powder
splash of white wine vinegar or lemon juice
salt & pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients. Serve on toasted bread or, if you must, lettuce.
HOMEMADE CHICKEN STOCK
Just as with roasting a chicken, there’s no one way to make chicken stock. If you do make it at home, though, I swear on my Kitchen Aid mixer that it will be about 8 million times better than the stuff you can buy at the store.
Time is your friend when making chicken stock, so you can’t be in a rush. I find that a minimum of 3-4 hours are required for a concentrated, brightly-hued batch.
3 ribs celery
2-3 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
splash of vinegar
salt & pepper
optional: white wine
If you roast the vegetables with the chicken, you can cut everything into big pieces and transfer them directly to a large pot along with the chicken carcass when you’re ready to make stock. Deglaze the roasting pan with white wine and then add that liquid to the pot as well.
If you’re making stock separately, dice the veggies and sweat them out in the stock pot first, with a little olive oil. Once they’re translucent, add the chicken carcass and enough water to cover the whole mess. Throw in the seasonings and a splash vinegar (said to help draw flavor out of the bones).
Bring to a boil and then simmer on low to medium heat, skimming the surface to remove any foam that appears in the first hour or so of cooking. After that, keep an eye to see how the liquid is reducing down the side of the pot. Once you can see a three-to-four-inch gap between where you started and where you are now, you’re in business. Like I said, give it at least three hours.
Allow the mixture to cool a bit before removing the carcass with tongs and then straining the liquid through a sieve. Discard vegetables and pick carcass clean of any extra meat bits.
Store the chicken stock in the refrigerator or freezer in an airtight container. The fat solids will rise to the top upon cooling; if you like, you can remove them. I don’t!
CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP
I made a noodle-less version of this soup for my friend Courtney a few weeks back, when she was feeling rather under-the-weather (see: germy students). She texted me the next day to say “I’m healed! And I’m pretty sure it was your soup that did it.” Hey, maybe becoming that grandma after all!
Credit for this recipe goes to Chef Roger Elkhouri, who taught the only cooking class I’ve ever taken. He was the head chef for my dorm in college and even though I hold him responsible for my Freshman 15 (it was bread and cakes for me, people, not beer!), he’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met and a culinary hero still.
1 yellow onion, diced
2 ribs celery, sliced thickly at a diagonal
2 carrots, peeled & sliced thickly at a diagonal
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
6 cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
2 whole cloves
1 tsp. curry powder
½ tsp. nutmeg
2 cups cooked chicken, shredded
4 cups broad egg noodles, cooked
Cook the onion, celery, & carrots in the bottom of a soup pot in a little vegetable oil. Add the garlic once the vegetables have begun to soften. Once the mixture is translucent, add the stock and spices.
Bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer gently at least thirty minutes. Add the chicken and egg noodles to warm through. Remove bay leaf, cinnamon stick, & cloves before serving.