DIWALI 2016

Ten years ago, I hosted my first Diwali party.  Less than six months after my father’s death, I threw myself into preparations, calling my mom for consultations on the proper way to cook the dishes I’d watched her make, but never made myself, my whole life.  I lived in Tucson, Arizona at the time, in my second year of graduate school, and I’ll never forget what it meant to me that my classmates, who I knew in certain ways through their writing but who were strangers to me in other ways, turned up to enthusiastically not just to celebrate a holiday but to bear witness to me as I fumbled my way through grief and an attendant longing to still be engaged in and hopeful about the world.

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I couldn’t have guessed, a decade ago, how my annual Diwali party would come to structure and witness so much shared history within the community Jill and I have built for ourselves.  Over the years, the celebration has gained significance because of so many attendant life events: marriages, losses, babies, cancer.  Each year, we gather together and take stock of what has transpired, making time for gratitude and reaffirming our faith in the power of goodness.

The Carroll/Mehra Diwali celebration has become a truly communal effort, a testament to the ways I have grown and changed, learning to actually ask for—and receive!—help.  My friend Maconda makes the most beautiful flower arrangements (even this year, when she couldn’t actually attend the party due to the flu), Megan plays wine fairy, Burke brought candles and napkins, Bonnie toys for the kids, and Greg & Sharon once again served as my last-minute, willing-to-do-whatever-is-needed helpers.  I throw the party because it’s tradition, because it is an important part of my identity and culture, because it is a strike in the “hope” column that I so desperately still want to occupy, but it would be worth it to throw the party each year simply to be reminded of the wonderful people who fill my life.  In the days since the part, lyrics from a song that I haven’t listened to in years filled my mind: “And I act like I have faith / and like that faith never ends / but I really just have friends.”

Diwali 2016 | Blue Jean Gourmet

Diwali, like all religious holidays, has a powerful story at its core.  The villain in the Diwali story is Ravana, who is spoken of in the tradition not as a cosmic demon but rather as a man who achieves demonic status via his greed, arrogance, ego, and lust for power.  In the myth, Ravana is eventually slain by the hero Rama, but the arc of Rama’s story includes fourteen years in exile.

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In its etymology, exile comes from a root meaning “to wander” and is a derivative of a verb meaning “to take out to the root.”  There is something potent for me in that image, of pulling something out of the earth, the way that my mom taught me to weed, not the lazy way—simply tearing at the visible green parts—but to go down into the soil, to get dirt under my fingernails, to pull up under stubborn tendrils, to tug until they gave way.  It is exhausting and sometimes back-breaking work.  It is slow.  Sometimes you have to pull up the same weed over and over and over again.

Maybe we are in exile, in darkness; or perhaps we have always been here and the light is just now being shed on it.  Either way, we all have some digging to do.

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MENU NOTES:

This year, I served vadouvan spiced cashews, pav bhaji & saag paneer (both made by my mom), Indian-spiced sweet potato latkes (improvised & maybe the hit of the night, served with strained & salted yogurt instead of sour cream), the ever-beloved and oft-requested grilled halloumi, tamarind-glazed lamb meatballs, and mini cardamom-and-rosewater-flavored cakes (adapted from this recipe) and these super-delicious coconut-brown-butter financiers, half of which I dipped in dark chocolate.

PREVIOUS DIWALI PARTIES ON THE BLOG:

2015, 2013*, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009

*We skipped a year because a bunch of our friends got married all at once!  (It was the best possible reason.)

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VEENA’S GARDEN TOMATO CHUTNEY

Hi friends.  Welcome to summer!

Veena's garden tomato chutney | Blue Jean Gourmet

This season is not everyone’s favorite, I know—for many parents, it is a logistical and financial nightmare; for some students, it is a desert of uncertainty between the reliable if not necessarily beloved schedule of school.  And for many of you, I know, it is just like any other time of year, only hotter.

Of course, I can’t pretend that, for me, the summer isn’t a very distinct time of year; I’m a teacher.  Summer, while not so structurally helpful for the continuity of learning, is personally restorative for both faculty and students.  It’s also a time period so mythologized in our culture—summer camp, summer vacation, summer road trips, summer romance—that it’s accompanied by the sheen of great expectations.

For me, this summer feels like an especially big one.  There are no major vacations planned, no summer bucket list, no house projects, not even very many plans to leave the house.  I’m being a little bit of a hermit this summer, but that’s because there is a new book to write.

Though my priority is to remain focused on the task at hand and take full advantage of the glorious, spoiling time I’ve been given this summer, I am trying to weave a few things into the hours that bookend work time.  Sitting in the backyard with Jill, watching the purple martins fly in the darkening sky.  Dance parties in the kitchen with Shiv before bedtime.  Dinner with just-graduated students who have seamlessly transitioned to the friends I knew they’d be all along.  Reading, reading, reading.  And spending time with my mom in her kitchen, watching and taking notes.  Shiv’s learning from her, too.

Veena's garden tomato chutney | Blue Jean Gourmet

VEENA’S GARDEN TOMATO CHUTNEY

My mom got Jill into growing flowers, and Jill got my mom into growing vegetables.  They are both instinctive, obsessive gardeners; whenever they talk about plants, it’s like observing a conversation in a foreign language.  I just sit and marvel.

All of which means that mom grew the tomatoes and the curry leaves that she used to make this chutney.  Jill & I liked the first batch so much (and consumed it so fast) that I asked mom to let me watch her make the second batch.  For my benefit and the benefit of this blog, she kinda-sorta measured things, but as she would say, just go with it.  You can’t screw this up. 

ingredients/instructions:

Soak 1 T washed chana dal & 1 tsp. washed urad dal in a little bit of water for approximately 1 hour.

Make your vagar: heat 1 T canola oil over medium/medium high heat until it’s just beginning to shimmer.  Add a pinch of asafetida & 1/2 tsp. mustard seeds—you want to hear the seeds pop; that’s how you know you got the oil hot enough.  (If not, throw it all out and start again.)

Turn the heat down to medium-low and add the strained daals, along with a small, fresh chile pepper of your choice (my mom grows Thai bird chilies in her backyard, so that’s what she used).  Cook the water off for just about one minute before adding: 1 T peeled & rough-chopped ginger, about 12-15 small curry leaves, approximately 2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes, & half of a large carrot, peeled and cut into chunks.

Stir everything together, add a bit of water to help soften the vegetables, then cover the pot.  Cook for 10-15 minutes or until the carrot pieces are soft and the tomatoes have opened.  Add 1 tsp. tamarind paste plus 1/2 tsp. each ground coriander and cumin, and process everything in the blender until it’s reached your desired consistency, adding water if needed.  Salt to taste. 

Will keep in a jar in the fridge for weeks, although at my house it doesn’t usually last longer than one or two! 

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INDIAN STYLE SWEET-AND-SOUR BUTTERNUT SQUASH

Y’all, I’m so bad at waiting. It’s one area I really have not made any improvement in as I’ve grown. I’m still impatient as I was when I was a kid.

Indian style sweet-and-sour butternut squash | Blue Jean Gourmet

When I was little, my dad would take me shopping for my mom’s birthday or Christmas present, only for me to come home and almost always be unable to wait to tell her what we had gotten for her. Guess what, Mama?

For the first few years of our relationship, I almost always ended up giving Jill her birthday present in June (her birthday is July 25th). That usually meant that I would also end up buying an additional present so that I’d have something to give her the day of. I am an enthusiastic, impatient mess.

Waiting for feedback from supervisors and agents, waiting for a loved one’s test results, waiting in line, waiting on traffic, waiting on a particular day to arrive, waiting to see someone, waiting for a letter to arrive or a pot to boil or a flower to bloom…you name it, I stink at it.

I’m not sure if there’s an inherent virtue in being able to wait, though patience is certainly a necessity in situations involving students and small children…I may never know, really, the gifts of calm and anxiety-free waiting. But I know that it’s probably good for me to have to wait, even though I hate it so much. It’s almost always good for us to have to practice doing things that we’re not good at, even though we would really rather not have to. All of this waiting doesn’t seem to be helping me get any better at doing it, but it is an important reminder that I am, you know, not the center of the universe, and that there is very little that I can actually control.

But, as Shiv would remind me, I can control my breathing. Deep breaths, Mama – don’t you love it when they apply the lessons we’ve taught them TO US? (Like maybe you got that concept a little too well, son?) I can continually bring my mind back to things that matter much more than my to-do list, like the faces in the photographs festoon the walls of my work cubicle. I can look down at the bracelet I’ve been wearing since I got it for my last birthday and be reminded that the greatest of these is all around me, if I can just stop and be present to it. I can think of the men we’ve collectively mourned this week, tremendous artists whose deaths remind us that it can all change in an instant.

INDIAN STYLE SWEET-AND-SOUR BUTTERNUT SQUASH

This dish is my mom’s creation; to get her “recipe,” I watched her make it and took notes, which meant I had to eyeball most of the quantities (though she did, graciously & uncharacteristically, measure out the water for me—thanks, Amma!) So, as you make this dish, feel free to tinker with the amounts of spice/flavorings. And if you’d like to substitute in another hard squash for the butternut, I think acorn or kabocha would work well.

For a meal, you might enjoy this sabji/sabzi (vegetable dish) alongside some aloo tikki; it’s also wonderful drizzled with a little plain yogurt and wrapped up inside warm naan or pita. This is also a great dish to make ahead of time, as it warms up easily and also thaws/freezes well.

Indian style sweet-and-sour butternut squash | Blue Jean Gourmet

ingredients:

~2 cups cubed butternut squash
2 cups water
2 T vegetable oil
1 T tamarind concentrate (substitute lemon/lime juice to achieve a similar sour note, though the flavor won’t be exactly the same)
1 T brown sugar
1 ½ tsp. fennel seeds
¼ tsp. each of ground ginger, cloves, cumin, coriander, & salt
generous pinch each of cinnamon & cayenne

optional: fresh cilantro

Heat oil over medium in a heavy-bottomed pot with a lid. After 1-2 minutes, add the fennel seeds, stirring them occasionally until they are aromatic and light brown. Add the squash to the pan and toss to coat.

Toss in all of the spices/seasonings, then the water, stir and cover. Allow the squash to cook for 15-20 minutes, checking at the fifteen minute mark to see if the squash is tender. Once it’s reached your desire texture (I like mine really soft), stir in the tamarind and brown sugar, then cook with the lid off until the liquid has evaporated. Garnish with fresh cilantro, and serve warm.

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TURKEY BIRYANI

My most prized kitchen possession is not actually mine; it’s Jill’s.


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The item in question is a Dutch oven that originally belonged to Jill’s maternal grandmother: black as soot, heavy as hell, with an interior seasoned smooth through decades of use. It’s no painted enamel looker, but as far as cooking utility goes, I’d put it up next to a $300 Le Creuset any day.

I made my first batch of gumbo in it; I was so nervous that I’d screw up my first real roux, but the comfort of knowing that the pan had much more experience in the matter than I did allowed me to keep my cool and take that roux right into the deep chocolate territory where it belonged. Just this morning, I baked bread in the same Dutch oven I used last night to make the biryani pictured here. Perhaps I am not exactly who Jill’s grandmother might have imagined would be using her heirloom pot, but I like to think that I could win her over with my ability to coax good food out of it to sustain, nourish, and delight my family—just as she did.

On a related note—if you are from the American South and care at all about food, please read this thoughtful, well-researched piece from The Bitter Southerner: The Seven Essential Southern Dishes. I read it aloud to Jill on our way down to our friends’ farm for a pre-Thanksgiving gathering; we delighted in the author’s spot-on descriptions, learned things we didn’t know about the food we love, and took issue with some of her choices—which she encourages folks to do. It’s worth a read, or an accented read-aloud. If you’ve still got relatives hanging around, I imagine it will provoke some lively debate and the telling of good stories.

TURKEY BIRYANI
Source: Anita Jaisinghani via The Houston Chronicle

I first clipped this recipe from the newspaper (so old school!) in 2010; the chef behind it is the proprietress and chef behind two of Houston’s best restaurants, Indika & Pondicheri, and I have long been an admirer of her talents.
Since then, this biryani has become a post-Thanksgiving tradition—we love it because it both uses up leftover turkey and creates a whole separate set of flavors from the ones typically associated with Thanksgiving. Plus, it’s a repurposing that doesn’t create another highly-caloric meal, but is still wonderfully delicious and can easily feed a crowd if you’ve still got houseguests or family in town.

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Notes:

*The original recipe calls for you to cook 1 cup of black beans to use in the recipe; I cheat and substitute canned beans.

*Please, please do not substitute another kind of rice for the Basmati; it is essential for the biryani to have the proper taste and texture. If possible, find imported Basmati rice from an Indian grocer—it should be extremely long-grained and fragrant. It makes all the difference.

*My mom, who is a fountain of culinary knowledge that I fear I will never fully manage to tap into, insisted that I add whole black cardamom pods (sometimes called false cardamom—larger than the green cardamom that you’re probably accustomed to seeing) and dried mace flowers (which, I learned, come from the nutmeg tree) to the biryani for authenticity’s sake. You will likely not have these things on hand—I didn’t—but should you, or should you wish to acquire them, wrap them in cheesecloth (to make them easier to fish out) and toss them into the rice as it cooks.

For the rice:

2 cups basmati rice
3 cups water
Small pinch saffron, soaked in a bit of warm water
2 tsp salt
2 T butter
2-3 bay leaves
2 cinnamon sticks

Rinse the basmati rice in cold water 3 times, or until the rinsing water is no longer cloudy. Soak the rinsed rise in warm water for an hour; drain.

Bring the rice, 3 cups of water, saffron, salt, butter, and spices to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cover the pan. Cook the rice for another 8-10 minutes, or until all of the water is gone. Take the rice off of the heat; fluff gently with a fork and set aside.

For the turkey masala:

2 large yellow onions, finely chopped
2 T butter
4 cups turkey meat, chopped or pulled (original recipe calls for leg meat; I used both dark & white)
1-2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 T ginger, grated fine
½ cup plain yogurt
1 T chili powder (I used chipotle chili powder—you can use whatever blend you have on hand)
1 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. salt
1 T garam masala
1 can black beans, rinsed and drained

Optional but highly recommended garnishes:

a handful each: toasted, chopped cashews, pomegranate seeds, chopped cilantro

turkey biryani | Blue Jean Gourmet

Preheat oven to low—for me, that’s 170°.

In a large Dutch oven, melt the butter and saute the onions over high heat until they start to sweat. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally until they are a dark golden brown. Add the turkey, garlic, and ginger, and cook on high for a few minutes.

Fold in the yogurt, chili powder, turmeric, and salt. Cover and cook on low heat for 8-10 minutes. Remove the Dutch oven from the heat, then stir in the garam masala. Add the black beans in an even layer, then spread the warm rice on top and cover with the lid.

Keep warm in a low oven for at least 15 and up to 30 minutes. Before serving, mix the biryani together very gently with a spatula, then top with garnishes.

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PAV BHAJI

Several months ago, Saveur Magazine (to which I am a subscriber and of which I am generally a big fan) tweeted about vada pav, linking to a recipe and calling the sandwich “Mumbai’s answer to the hamburger.”


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I took issue.

One culture’s dish is not necessarily an “answer to” another, and to imply so betrays bias—in this case, a Western one.  To say that a vada pav is “like” a hamburger–or, more accurately, a veggie burger–would make sense as far as providing useful context for your audience.  But the language “answer to” implies that Indians developed vada pav in imitation of the hamburger, which is ridiculous; we’re talking about a country with one of the richest food traditions of all time, built through the process of repeated foreign invasions and the influence of vastly diverse cultures, none of which give a shit about American hamburgers.

But it’s just wording, you might be saying.  Why get so angry over semantics?

Because semantics matter.  Because semantics are about more than just semantics.  I’m certain that whomever at Saveur (a food publication that usually tends to be much more sensitive than some of its peers about positionality and exoticizing and assuming audience) tweeted that seemingly innocuous comparison, they were not thinking about any of the implications that later got hashed out on Twitter after I responded to the tweet and my response caught the attention of folks in the Houston food community and beyond.  That’s my point, though; they didn’t think.

It’s easy not to think about these things when they don’t affect you.  It’s easy to say, “Oh, it’s not that big a deal!” when the language in question is not reductive of you or your people.  It’s easy to think that someone’s just making a fuss when you aren’t the one feeling dismissed or discounted.

I’m an English teacher and a writer, so of course I believe that our words matter; but I’m not the only one.  Nearly every religious tradition the world has ever known invokes the power of language: in their creation myths (think of “In the beginning was the Word”), in their ritual (Hindus & Buddhists, among others, utilize mantras), and in their practices (many Jews will not write out God’s name, out of respect for the power that it wields).

Shiv, who turned two in July, has exploded with language in the last month or so.  It’s been incredible to watch, a marvel really, how quickly his brain acquires and connects and makes meaning.  I am reminded of the Old Testament scene from Genesis, where God gives Adam the authority to name the creatures; as my son walks and names what he sees, it is almost as if he grants things their very being.   His world comes to life through his speaking, and he relates to that world in a completely different way now that he can speak about it.

They say that one reason for “baby amnesia,” the fact that most of us have little-to-no memory before the age of two or three, is also related to language; without language, the structure through which humans make meaning of their surroundings, we are unable to record our experiences.

Speech carries great weight—we’ve all experienced this in our own lives.  Just a few words, the “right” ones or the “wrong” ones, can stick with us forever, can cause us to shut down or open up, to decide in an instant to change our life’s path or join our life with someone else’s.

So yeah, it matters to me when our culture casually perpetuates sloppy, harmful language, reinforcing dangerous forms of “normality” and turning a blind eye to stuff that really matters.  Would we care about “domestic” violence more if we simply referred to it as violence?  Why am I a “lesbian writer,” when all of my straight friends are just writers?  How is it okay call Shiv my “adopted son,” but would be weird if I talked to a colleague about his “conceived-by-IVF daughter”?

The good news is, I’ve found, most folks—at least the ones I’m lucky to know—are willing to engage with another perspective, to look and see if something they’ve said might have a host of implications they hadn’t considered.  We’re all guilty of it, myself included.   

It’s easy not to think about these things.  That’s why it’s so important that we do.

MY MOM’S PAV BHAJI

I’ve never been that big of a fan of vada pav, but pav bhaji–that’s a different story.   More vegetarian sloppy joe than hamburger, pav bhaji is a delicious, delicious comfort food that works perfectly for colder weather months and is one of those meals you can make mostly ahead/eat throughout the week.

My most distinct memory of this meal is working at the kitchen table in my parents’ house growing up (the table where I sit right now, in fact, as we inherited it from my mom when she moved here) on weekend afternoons.  During junior and senior year, when I was working my butt off on Calculus and college applications and my World History II term paper and Physics and Mock Trial, my mom would deliver chai and pav bhaji to the table; I could eat & drink with one hand, and keep working with the other.

Because my mom is basically the best (as is clearly demonstrated by the story above and about a zillion others), she took the time to measure out the ingredients and write down the method for her pav bhaji recipe, a thing so rare that we should consider it a great gift indeed.  And just as delicious as I remember from high school.

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ingredients:

one large red onion, diced

1 T finely minced ginger

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

½ cup fresh cilantro, chopped

half a head of cauliflower, cut or broken into 1-inch pieces

4 large, ripe tomatoes, diced (substitute 14 oz. can of diced potatoes)

2 medium-sized Russet potatoes, peeled & diced

1 cup cubed fresh carrots

1 cup frozen peas

¼ cup butter

2 T canola oil

small pinch asafetida

generous pinch ground turmeric

2 T pav bhaji masala (mix is available for purchase at Indian grocery stores, or you can make your own)

salt, to taste

Place potato and cauliflower in a pot with enough water to cover.  Add cubed carrots and bring the vegetables to a boil, cooking until potatoes are tender.  Mash vegetables gently with a potato masher, not to a pulp but in order to create a “sloppy joe” kind of texture.  Do not discard the leftover water.

In a separate, heavy-bottomed pan, add butter and oil and head over medium.  Once hot, add asafetida and turmeric—they should sizzle.  Immediately add onions, garlic, and ginger, and sauté until the onions have browned slightly.  Next add the tomatoes and pav bhaji masala; cover the pot and allow the mixture to simmer for 3-5 minutes.  Add the mashed vegetables and any accumulated liquid, along with frozen peas and salt to taste.

Cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring regularly to make sure that the mixture does not stick to the bottom.  Continue to cook until all water is evaporated and the mixture is thick.  Stir in half the cilantro and garnish with the rest.

to serve:

lime wedges

sliced sweet onion

bread of your choice—soft rolls or hamburger buns are traditional

butter

pav bhaji masala

When ready to eat, melt a little butter in a skillet over medium heat.  Add a pinch of the pav bhaji and swirl the pan, then toast your bread in the pan, flipping to season both sides.  Repeat as needed.

Pile the pav bhaji mixture onto the bread to eat as sandwiches, or use the bread for dipping.  Squeeze lime on top of everything and enjoy bites of onion in between bites of bhaji.  Best enjoyed with a proper cup of chai.

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DIWALI 2013

Last Saturday, I threw my seventh Diwali party.

Diwali 2013 | Blue Jean Gourmet

 Actually, it would be completely inaccurate for me to say that I threw this party and imply that I did it by myself.  Hardly.  One of the things I have finally learned is that not only can I not do everything by myself, it’s much more fun to let incredible people in my life help.

And so, friend-of-a-friend Laura designed the most perfect invitations, out-of-town friend Rebecca not only drove with her husband from San Antonio for the party, but also brought custom-made food labels that matched the invitations perfectly, Megan & Maconda made the house and backyard tables look exquisite with vintage glass, floating candles, and the loveliest arrangements of pink flowers, Greg & Sharon handled plates and napkins, finding the loveliest designs, and tied sparklers into bundles for the gift bags, and continued the tradition of being the deliverers of my last-minute “Oh crap I forgot this!” items.

Diwali 2013 Shiva collage | Blue Jean Gourmet

 My mom cooked a full half of the food served, wowing everyone with her chicken tikka masala and stuffed eggplant (yes, I promise to blog about those soon!), looked like a million bucks in the deep purple sari she wore, and charmed everyone who met her for the first time.  Diwali marks the one-year anniversary of her living here in Texas, just 1.96 miles away from our house, and I couldn’t be more grateful to be able to say that.  Jill, loving spouse of shocking efficiency, rendered the back yard a twinkling retreat, perfect for the day’s fall temperatures, helped clean the house, wrangle our child, and served as always-gracious host to the almost-forty people who walked through our door.

For his part, Shiv romped, flirted, played ball (pictured here with Rebecca’s husband, Aaron), and pointed up at airplanes passing overhead (his latest thing).  He had a blast, and I hope everyone else did, too.

Diwali 2013: Shiv & Aaron | Blue Jean Gourmet

 When I threw my first Diwali party, I didn’t think too much about why I was doing it or what I was hoping to get out of it; I had just lost my dad, and throwing the party seemed a way to honor him and the rituals of my youth, plus it gave me a project, something to do, which is helpful when you are grieving.  Since then, though, I’ve thought (along with Jill) more deliberately about the intention behind the tradition we’ve created.

Our hope is to create something magical, to render our home a sacred space, one in which strangers can meet and connect, feel and share joy, and leave well fed not just in stomach but in soul.  To me, Diwali is, in its essence, an affirmation of the belief that love is the strongest force in the universe; that, no matter how hopeless things seem, human goodness will always triumph.  And each year, the people who we are lucky enough to have in our lives show up at our house and serve as living proof of that belief.

Diwali 2013 collage | Blue Jean Gourmet

 Diwali celebrations, previously: 2012, 2011, 2010, & 2009.

MENU NOTES:

We billed this year’s gathering as an open house/happy hour, so we had plenty of beer, wine, & cocktails on hand.  The two cocktails I served—Lucky Dogs & Cider Sidecars—proved to be incredibly popular and were easy to prep ahead of time.

For food, we had: the aforementioned chicken tikka masala & stuffed eggplants from my mom, a sev puri station that included sprouted mung beans (also a hit, also done by mom), some tamarind-glazed lamb meatballs that I made, roasted chickpeas, a cucumber/onion/tomato salad, carrot achar (pickle), onion pakoras (fried by—you guessed it!  my amazing mother) served with tomato chutney, and saag paneer pizza, which was the hands-down runaway hit of the night.

Here’s how I did them, step by step  (I was able to fit 3 “pizzas” per baking sheet & work in batches):

1.  Garlic naan (Storebought from Whole Foods—I’m not THAT crazy!)

2.  Homemade saag slathered on top (I made mine in the slow cooker overnight, which helped it thicken, keeping it from being too watery.)

3.  Generous handfuls of pre-shredded mozzarella (don’t use fresh mozz, it’s too watery)

4.  Cubes of homemade paneer sprinkled on top.

5.  Into a very hot oven–500°–to get the cheese all melty, and then a few minutes under the broiler to brown everything.

6.  A good slather of homemade cilantro chutney after the pizzas came out of the oven.

7.  Cool slightly, cut into wedges, & serve hot.

(No pictures, they disappeared too quickly!)

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INDIAN-STYLE TOMATO RICE

Things that are rocking my world these days:


1.    Late summer tomatoes.

2.    Being on maternity leave.

3.    This coconut chai.

4.    Tiny, Beautiful Things, a collection of advice columns written by the very wise, compassionate, authentic, and funny Cheryl Strayed (of Wild fame).  Less advice columns and more paeans to the human condition, in all of its weird, messy, thrilling, sacred glory.

5.    Minnesota Vikings kicker Chris Kluwe’s profane & awesome letter in support of gay marriage.

6.    Getting emails from my students (I miss them!), long letters from friends who live far away, & the small but oh-so-welcome drop in temperature we’ve had around here.  It’s been cool enough for outdoor runs & feeding the baby al fresco & writing in the morning next to open windows.

7.    And the fact that our little guy has taken to grinning.

This recipe for Indian tomato rice is perfect for the aforementioned late summer tomatoes we’re still getting down here; the heat from the chili pepper and earthiness of the sambar powder play nicely against their candy sweetness.  Best of all, this dish, like fried rice, makes perfect use of that leftover rice you never know what to do with.

Like so many of the best dishes on Blue Jean Gourmet, this one was cribbed from my mom, who generously shares her effortlessly good recipes.  This tomato rice was a staple of my middle school lunchbox; I have many fond memories of sharing it with friends who coveted the “exotic” contents of my lunches (a far cry from a bologna sandwich, this.)  True to form, my mom started packing extra on the days she packed tomato rice so that my friends could have their own servings.   She’s pretty swell like that.

INDIAN TOMATO RICE RECIPE


ingredients:

1 ½ cups cooked basmati rice
1 ½ cups large-dice tomatoes (halved if you’re using cherry/grape tomatoes)
1 small-to-medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
6 curry leaves, chopped
1 ½ T minced fresh ginger
1 tsp. sambar powder
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1 dried red chili pepper of your choice
¼ tsp. asafetida
salt to taste
vegetable oil

optional: 1 cup of fresh or frozen vegetables such as peas, okra, butternut squash, carrots, bell pepper, etc.

garnish: toasted cashews & chopped cilantro

In a deep saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat.  After five minutes, add the mustard seeds—they should turn white and pop.  (If not, start again).  Add the asafetida, then turn the heat down to medium and toss in the ginger, chili pepper, & curry leaves.  Cook for a minute or two.  Add frozen mixed vegetables, and/or sliced onion, 1 tsp. sambar powder, and let cook.

Add tomatoes, smush while cooking to form gravy.  Toss in rice & turn off heat.  Add garnishes and serve!

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BHINDI MASALA AND A BABY

We had scheduled a cooking party way in advance; Ruthie offered to host, Sharon to bring the okra, and me to teach them how to make my mom’s version of bhindi masala, okra stuffed with spices and pan-fried.

There was also a crockpot of daal, a jar of basmati rice-for-the-making, and fresh yogurt, whose cooling properties balance nicely with the spicy okra.

After hugs, flirting with Ruthie’s three-month-old (who supervised the proceedings from his bouncy chair on the kitchen counter), and catching up, we were ready to settle in and cook up a storm.  I checked my phone, planning to put it away, and lo and behold—I read an email that had me make this face:

What kind of email could cause me to grin like a dork?  Why, an email from our adoption agency, of course, saying that we had matched with a birth mother and that we would, if all goes well, have a baby in our lives between now and July 26th.

A bhindi baby!

In the midst of excitement and phone calls, we still managed to make and eat some spicy okra, which I’d like to share with you today.  Given that we could become parents any day now, I’m not sure how often I will be able to update the blog in the coming weeks; I know y’all will understand this best-of-all-possible-reasons for any long silences. We feel incredibly blessed and are beyond thrilled!

BHINDI MASALA, MY MOM’S WAY

For this recipe, choose the most tender okra you can find.  Also, longer pods are better, as they will be easier to stuff.

ingredients:

20 okra pods (you can absolutely make this recipe with more okra, you will just need to bump up the amount of spices as well)
6 T ground coriander
6 T ground cumin
3 T amchur powder*
2 T garlic powder
1 T salt (you will be adding more salt at the end)
1-2 tsp. cayenne (depending on your desired level of heat)

Rinse the okra and pat dry.  Use a small, sharp knife to trim both ends.  Then, very carefully, use the same knife to make a slit in each okra pod; you do not want to cut the pod in half, you are basically making a pocket to hold the spices.

When all of the okra are ready, stir all of your spices together.  Slowly pour in 2 T of oil and stir to make a paste, adding up to another tablespoon if necessary.

It’s optional but recommended to wear gloves at this point!  Heat an inch of vegetable oil in your heaviest skillet (cast iron is great) over medium-high.  Let it heat up while you stuff the okra.

With your fingers, gently pry the “pocket” open wide enough to stuff a bit of the spice mixture inside.  Wipe off any excess.  Repeat until all of the pods have been stuffed.

Pan fry the okra a few at a time, being sure not to crowd the skillet.  The okra and spices will sputter and bubble, and should brown quickly.  Cook for 2-3 minutes on each side, then remove to a paper-towel-lined cookie sheet.  If you are cooking a large batch, keep the cookie sheet in a low oven while you finish the rest.

Sprinkle the cooked okra with salt to taste, and serve with plain yogurt on the side.

Many thanks & photo credits go to Ruthie Johnson Miller for documenting the day!
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BHARTHA & BITTER MELON

This happens to me a lot: things that I never ate/couldn’t stand the sight of as a kid become my favorites as an adult.  Please see: avocadoes, pie, oatmeal, and both of the dishes below.

{blistered eggplant cooked with tomatoes, fava beans, & yogurt}

{caramelized bitter melon with onions & fennel seeds}


There’s a fair chance that few of you will make or are interested in making either one of those things—but I am at the mercy of this bossy but admittedly accurate tweet.  So I set about remedying the recent lack of Indian food posts on this side.  In doing so, I noticed that I have not  posted my method for “proper Indian girl rice” before, nor have I covered any Indian breads or my (sorta) famous Indian stuffed okra.  Forgive me; I’ll get right on that!

I don’t mind requests (er, demands) at all, because I love knowing that I am posting something that someone, even if it’s just Misha, will actually make, and hopefully enjoy.

BAINGAN BHARTA, MY WAY

This is one of those nearly ubiquitous dishes, North Indian in origin, that finds its way onto lots of Indian food menus.  Luckily, it’s quite easy to make at home and very adaptable to your tastes—I’ve made it here with raw fava beans, because I LURVE them & they are in season now, but you could use good ole fashioned frozen peas (the way my mom made this dish all growing up) or substitute any fully cooked pea or bean (lima would be nice).

Also, you can cook the eggplant a couple of different ways.  Note: I tend to use conventional “globe” eggplants (American, Italian, & Indian all have a similar shape, though vary in size) for this recipe, not the longer, skinny Japanese or Asian eggplants.  Not to say it wouldn’t work with those, I’ve just never tried.

•    Halve the eggplant(s) and coat with vegetable oil.  Place cut-side down on a foil-lined baking sheet and slide the baking sheet onto a rack in the top third of your oven.  Set the oven to broil and allow the eggplant skins to char for approximately 15-20 minutes, depending on the size of your eggplants.  Wearing gloves, carefully check to see if the inside flesh of the eggplant has become very soft.  If not, cook longer until the flesh is scoop-able with a spoon.  Cool the eggplants before handling.

•    If you have a charcoal grill, you could do something similar to the above broiling method, without heating up your house; halve eggplant, coat with oil, and wrap in foil, allowing the eggplants to smolder on the grill until the flesh is soft.

•    If you have a gas grill or a grill pan, you can slice your eggplant into rounds, coat with oil, and grill the slices until they are soft.  Alternately, you can start the eggplant on the grill or in the grill pan to achieve some char, and then transfer to a 400° oven until the flesh yields easily when poked with a fork.

•    If you have a gas stove (lucky duck), I’m betting you could char the eggplant directly over a low flame, turning carefully with tongs until the skin is charred.  But this is simply an educated guess, so if you try it, let me know how it turns out!

Once your eggplant has been cooked and cooled, carefully remove the skin and mash the flesh with the back of a fork—doesn’t have to be smooth, just try to homogenize a little.  It will all work out when you cook it, I promise.

Now for the actual recipe.  You’ll see that my recipe calls for some smoked paprika or chipotle chili powder—not exactly conventional Indian ingredients, but either will add smokiness that works well with the eggplant.  If you happen to have smoked salt, you could use that instead.

ingredients:

approximately 2 cups’ worth of eggplant flesh
-I usually get enough from one big giant eggplant or two smaller ones
1 cup of chopped red onion
3 small-to-medium tomatoes, cored and chunked
-OR 1 small can tomato sauce
½ cup plain yogurt, preferably full-fat
½ cup shelled fava beans
¼ cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
¼ cup fresh ginger, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small Serrano or other hot green pepper, minced
-AND/OR ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper (optional—for heat!)
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. smoked paprika OR chipotle chili powder
salt, to taste
vegetable oil

In a deep saucepan, heat a few tablespoons of oil on medium until it just starts to shimmer.  Add the cumin seeds and immediately turn down the heat a bit, swirling the pan to keep the seeds from burning.  The seeds should sizzle and start to crack, but if they don’t you’ll need to try again (otherwise they will taste bitter).

Once the spluttering dies down, add the onion, garlic, and ginger (plus green pepper if you’re using it), cooking over medium-low until the onion has softened and everything smells fantastic.  Add the eggplant pulp and stir well, adding the ground spices and a little bit of salt to start.  Cover and cook down for approximately 5 minutes.

Remove the lid and add the tomatoes/tomato sauce and fava beans.  Cover and cook another 5 minutes.  You’re not going to over- or under-cook at this point, since the eggplant is already “done,” you’re just looking for the elements of the dish to become combined and incorporated—just make sure the flame is low so your bhartha doesn’t burn at the bottom.

Okay, you’re almost done!  Turn the heat to low and stir in the yogurt and cilantro.  Check for salt and spice, and adjust accordingly.  Once everything has warmed through, you are ready to serve!

serve with: rice, naan or the bread of your choice, even crackers (it makes a fine baba ghanouj-esque dip!)

CARAMELIZED BITTER MELON WITH ONIONS & FENNEL SEEDS

There are a couple of different varieties of the aptly named bitter melon, or karela:  Chinese bitter melon, which is longer and paler green than its Indian cousin, covered with gentle bumps and ridges.  The Indian melon is more bitter, darker green, & incredibly bumpy.  You can use either for this dish—find one or both varieties at your local Asian grocery store, or maybe even your local Farmers Market (summer is the season for bitter melon!)

Fair warning: bitter melon requires a bit of advanced preparation.  For this recipes you must first peel or scrape off the outer green skin.  Some other bitter melon recipes, particularly those in which the vegetable is fried, claim you can leave the skin on, but I’ve never done this.

After peeling, slice the melon into thin rounds—keep the seeds, they’re delicious!  Place the slices in a shallow bowl or dish and cover with generous amounts of coarse salt.  Refrigerate for at least an hour.  Rinse the bitter melon to remove the salt, then squeeze to remove excess moisture and allow the slices to dry on paper towels.  Now, you’re ready!

ingredients:

approximately 2 cups of prepared, sliced bitter melon
-from, say, 3 of the larger Chinese melons or 4-5 of the smaller Indian variety
2 cups sliced red onion
1 tsp. fennel seeds
pinch asafetida
pinch cayenne pepper (optional, for heat)
pinch amchur powder (optional, for a little sourness)
vegetable oil
salt

In a wide skillet, heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium-high heat.  After a few minutes, add the asafetida—it will sizzle in the pan.  The asafetida adds a very distinctive flavor which I love, but a little goes a long way, so be careful.  Toss in the fennel seeds and just a pinch of salt.  (Do not salt to taste now!  Because the mixture will reduce down considerably during cooking, the salt can become intensified and overwhelming, ruining the dish.)

Immediately add the onions and cook them until they begin to soften, a few minutes.  Add the bitter melon and stir once, then leave the pan alone and let the onions and melon brown over medium to medium-to-high heat.  Walk away from the pan!  If you stir, there will be no browning.  Check back in about four minutes.

Okay, do you see any browning?  If yes, then you may stir a little.  If no, walk away again.  Repeat this cycle, adjusting the heat as necessary, until everything—onions, melon slices, melon seeds—is a nice, dark brown.  The amount of “stuff” in the pan will have reduced a great deal as well, at least by half.

Now do a little taste-test for salt.  Add some if it’s needed, and then add cayenne and/or amchur, if using.

serve with: This dish cries out for cucumber raita—the cooling yogurt dish tempers the strong flavor.  You can also just use plain yogurt, if you’re feeling lazy.

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SAAG PANEER

My little sister got married this weekend.


Of course, Varsha isn’t technically my sister—technically, she’s not related to me at all.  But technically is not how the community I grew up in works.  Technically isn’t even part of the vocabulary.

I grew up surrounded by an incredibly tight network of “uncles” and “aunties” who, like my parents, emigrated from India in the late sixties and early seventies and somehow wound up in Memphis, Tennessee.  Though they did not know each other beforehand, are not even from the same region of India, do not necessarily speak each other’s native languages or share family background, are from different castes and, in some cases, different religions, our parents raised us together, a makeshift village.

As a child, my “real” family—all in India—was distant, strange, unfamiliar; I have only visited there three times in my entire life.  To me, the people whom I felt connected to, unconditionally loved by, and stuck with, for better or worse, were the people my parents had chosen, the people whose houses I could ride my bike to, in whose upstairs rooms I played “Taboo” and watched, regrettably, The Shining at a very tender age.   They call me “Nishtie” and have known me since birth.

Part of what it means to be a family is to be a witness to the particular way someone grew up, someone who shares that particular little pocket of time, place, and circumstance, who knows the inside jokes, shares face time in vacation photos, and remembers the accidents, the sadness, the difficulty, the tradition, and the joy.  So I say that these people, though we are not bound by one drop of blood or any kind of relatedness that would hold up in court, are my family.

This weekend, I was joyfully present as Varsha, whom I’ve known since she was born, married her love of nine years, Devon.  I wrapped myself up in four different saris, caught up with folks I hadn’t seen in years, ate plates of fabulous Indian food, cried, cracked up as the adorable bride and groom surprised us all with a choreographed dance to Taylor Swift’s “Our Song,” and had the pleasure of co-emceeing the reception with the groom’s brother.

Indian weddings, in case you’ve never been, are vibrantly colorful, richly tradition-filled, elaborate, generous affairs, with events that stretch over the course of several days.  This one was no exception, but for me it was also so much more—an opportunity to feel and express my gratitude at being part of this incredible community.

To have memories of someone at age three or four, calling you “Nidda” and saying “shwimp” instead of “shrimp,” to have built elaborate slumber party tents with her, watched her fight off awful childhood migraines but win chess tournaments anyway, then notice suddenly that she’s grow into an incredibly beautiful, kind, and hard-working woman, and one night to get up and dance in celebration on the night of her wedding to a wonderful guy—there really aren’t any words to describe how that feels.

So, this one is for Varshie, with congratulations and so much joy.  I love you, little sister.

SAAG PANEER RECIPE

My mom made the saag paneer for Varsha & Devon’s engagement party, and Varsha knew immediately that my mom had been the one who made it.  This is her recipe, with a few adjustments from me.

I usually make a huge batch, so I cut the measurements down here to be more manageable.  That said, this recipe doubles (or triples!) easily and freezes very well.  You can also make the paneer ahead of time and store it separately in the fridge or freezer.

Surprised to see broccoli used here?  It adds creaminess and body to the dish without adding fat, in the form of even more butter or cream, which is often what makes restaurant saag taste so good.  When reducing or increasing this recipe, just keep this ratio in mind—3:1:1 :: spinach : broccoli : greens

You can certainly use fresh spinach for the saag, but I find it more cost-efficient and less time-consuming to use good quality frozen instead.


for the saag:

1 stick butter
1 large onion, roughly chopped
¼ cup minced garlic
¼ cup minced fresh ginger
3 packages frozen spinach
1 packages frozen chopped broccoli
1 package frozen mustard/turnip greens, swiss chard, or kale*
2 T corn flour
1 ½ T ground jeera (cumin)
1 ½ T ground dhania (coriander)
½ -1 tsp. lal mirch (cayenne)
1 T salt
1 cup paneer, cubed

Thaw the frozen greens in the fridge for a couple of hours, or in the kitchen sink for just an hour if rushed.  When ready, in a heavy bottomed pot, melt the butter and cook the onion, garlic, & ginger until translucent.  Add the thawed greens and a bit of water, if necessary, cover and cook for a half-hour or until the greens are soft, stirring occasionally.

Remove the greens from the heat and stir in the corn flour.  Blend everything in the pot using a stick blender, or let the mixture cool and then combine in a conventional blender or food processor.  Return the greens to the pot and add the spices, stirring well.  (At this point, you can also add a bit more butter, if you’re feeling decadent).

Cook for another 25-30 minutes, or until the saag pulls away from the sides of the pot.  Taste and check for salt, then stir in the paneer and let it warm up before serving.

*I have a hard time finding frozen greens, so I usually buy 2 bunches of fresh greens, wash them, and wilt them separately.

for the paneer:

1 gallon whole milk

lemon or lime juice (amount needed varies, be prepared with at least ¼ cup)

Line a colander with cheesecloth and place it in the sink.  In a large pot, bring the milk to a boil over medium heat.  Watch the milk because it will seem to do nothing for almost fifteen minutes, and then all of a sudden it will be close to boiling over.  When it gets to that point, remove the pot of milk from the heat.

Begin adding the citrus juice a few tablespoons at a time, stirring vigorously to distribute.  Continue to patiently add the juice until you see curds forming.  Once the curds have formed, pour the entire contents of the pot through the cheesecloth-lined colander.  (Note: you can save the liquid—the whey—and use it in place of water in baked goods).

Using gloves (the curds will be very hot!), lift the cheesecloth out onto a sturdy cutting board.  Place the cutting board back into the sink, then weigh it down using the pot you just cooked the milk in, filling it with water, which will also help with cleaning later.

For crumbled cheese, let the paneer sit at least an hour.  For sturdier paneer, transfer the pressed paneer to the fridge overnight, making sure it’s well covered with cheesecloth or damp paper towels.

Cube the paneer and brown it, either in a pan with oil or on a foil-lined, greased baking sheet under a low broiler (turn the pieces halfway through browning, which will only take about 10 minutes total).  Once browned, paneer will keep in the fridge for a week or in the freezer for a few months.

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