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.
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, 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.
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.
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:
*We skipped a year because a bunch of our friends got married all at once! (It was the best possible reason.)
This year, I made many a cup of properly spicy and milky chai. I shared the secret to indulgent, old-school cheese grits, made a vanilla bean panna cotta for Valentine’s Day, posted a guest recipe for addictive, homemade sriracha, and wrote about that beloved Indian restaurant staple: saag paneer.
Jill & I drank our fair share of champagne cocktails, fell in love with an eggplant salad, and joyfully welcomed baby Shiv into our lives. My mom retired, sold the house I grew up in, and moved to a new house less than two miles away from ours.
It’s been a YEAR, friends. Jill & I plan to celebrate it with some homemade pasta and a trip to the movies while Shiv hangs out with his grandmother. On New Year’s Day, we’ll offer the little man his first taste of solid food—sweet potatoes from our dear friends’ garden.
If you’ve got festivities lined up to ring in 2013, allow me to humbly suggest you bring some of these gougères to the party. Light, addictive, and just a little bit fancy, these bites of cheese-filled pastry are easy to make ahead and reheat when you’re ready to serve them (alongside glasses of champagne, of course!)
Recipe from Alain Ducasse as published in Food & Wine, October 2003
To make gougères, you first make pâte à choux, or choux pastry, which is the same pastry dough used to make éclairs, profiteroles, and beignets, among other French desserts.
Pâte à choux is cooked twice—first in a saucepan as you make the dough, and a second time in the oven (or fryer, in the case of beignets), where the large amount of moisture in the dough creates steam that makes the pastry rise.
Though pâte à choux sounds fancy and intimidating, it isn’t really, I promise. The main thing is to make sure you have your mise en place
—ingredients at the ready—and then it’s as simple as following directions and feeling impressed with yourself when the gougères come out of the oven.
½ cup water
½ cup milk
4 oz. unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons
large pinch of salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup shredded Gruyère, plus a few pinches more for sprinkling
freshly ground pepper
freshly grated nutmeg
pan: baking sheets lined with parchment
To make the pastry, combine the water, milk, butter, and salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon until a smooth dough forms; turn the heat down to low and continue to stir until the dough pulls away from the pan and looks dry.
Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool for 1-2 minutes. Add the eggs to the dough, one at a time, mixing vigorously and thoroughly between each one. Don’t worry if the dough appears to curdle and separate at first! Keep stirring and it will come together. Once all of the eggs have been added, stir in the cheese and a few generous grinds of pepper and a pinch of grated nutmeg.
Spoon the dough into a pastry bag fitted with a ½-inch round tip (or, if you’re me, into a large Ziploc bag with a small piece cut off of the corner). Piping in a spiral shape, make tablespoon-size rounds on the baking sheets, leaving about an inch of room between each one. Sprinkle with extra cheese and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until puffed and light brown. Serve immediately.
If you are making the gougères ahead, let them cool completely and then refrigerate or freeze them in an airtight container or bag. Reheat in a 350° oven until nice and hot.
Things I have discovered since my last post:
1) People really love giving unsolicited parenting advice.
2) People also really love to give baby girl clothes; between hand-me-downs and gifts, I don’t think we will need to buy this kiddo a stitch of clothing until she’s fifteen.
3) From our immediate friends and family to online acquaintances to perfect strangers, people have been more generous and genuinely happy for us than I would have imagined possible. It’s humbling, thrilling, and overwhelming in the best way.
4) Adoption is a much bigger story than just mine and Jill’s part. For our birth mother, this will be the hardest thing she’s ever done—and there’s no guarantee she will be able to do it. We understand that, we are willing to take that risk, and we respect her desire to give her baby a different kind of life than the one she can provide. She is one of the bravest people we have ever met, and we love her.
5) Installing a car seat correctly is slightly more complicated than one might have guessed.
We are figuring out how to exist in this strange, thrilling limbo; following powerful flashes of productivity and thanks to our wonderful community, the nursery is almost done and essential “baby stuff” has been acquired. As eager as we are, I keep trying to remember that liminal space is often the most fruitful—even as it is also the most frustrating.
(my mom sent me this raspberry clafouti recipe years ago–I believe she got it from the NPR website)
Jill and I are definitely in the “it takes a village” camp when it comes to our child-rearing philosophy; we were both raised by villages and feel incredibly blessed to have a fine village of our own who are eager to welcome little Peanut along with us.
One of our “chief villagers” is Jill’s best friend Bonnie. She’s one of the sanest, funniest, and most competent people I know and we are so lucky to have her in our lives! She came over the other night to check out our progress on the nursery (and spoil us with even more gifts), so I made this dessert in her honor because she l-o-v-e-s raspberries.
In addition to being the most fun word to say perhaps ever (clafouti! clafouti! clafouti!), this dessert is like the more sophisticated, French cousin of this blackberry upside down cake. Instead of a cake batter, you make a custard to pour over the raspberries, resulting in an airy, silky mouthful that perfectly complements the delicate texture of the raspberries. Bonnie went back for seconds.
1 pint fresh raspberries, rinsed and patted dry
½ vanilla bean
¾ cup whole milk
¾ cup heavy cream
½ cup sugar, plus a bit more for dusting
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 T vanilla or almond extract*
confectioner’s sugar (optional), to garnish
* the original recipe calls for framboise, or raspberry liquor, but I didn’t have any on hand
Butter a deep, 9-inch pie pan and coat it with granulated sugar (I think I may actually use a 9-inch square pan next time, as my pie pan was quite full when I slid it into the oven). Shake out any excess sugar, then scatter the berries in the bottom of the pan. Place the pan on top of a baking sheet to catch any spills.
Pour the cream and heat into a saucepan, then split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds in, tossing in the whole pod as well. Heat over medium-high until small bubbles just begin to form, then remove from the heat.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the eggs while slowly adding in the sugar. Continue to beat the eggs on medium until thick and pale—this will take approximately 2 minutes. Sift the flour and salt together, then add them to the egg mixture in four batches while beating on low speed.
Slowly pour the milk mixture through a sieve (to catch the vanilla bean), then drizzle into the egg & flour mixture while beating at low speed. Finally, stir in the extract or liqueur of our choice and pour the custard into the pie pan, topping the berries.
Bake the clafouti in the middle of the oven for 30-35 minutes or until puffy, browned, and set in the center. Dust with confectioner’s sugar, cut into wedges, and serve warm (we also served it with whipped cream).
So much to celebrate this week!
Yesterday was my dear friend Megan’s birthday—she is the baby of our college group (I’m the oldest), so we marked her twenty-ninth year with drinks and an Italian dinner. Saturday is my best friend Rebecca’s wedding, in which Megan and I will be bridesmaids and joyful attendants. There will be a gorgeous lace dress, a ceremony in a gazebo, dinner, drinks, dancing, and little mini key lime pies and turtle cheesecakes made by yours truly. I have a pretty blue dress with pockets and I cannot wait to celebrate my friend and the wonderful couple that she and her soon-to-be-husband make.
Megan, Rebecca, and I have been friends since our freshman year of college, which adds up to over a decade now. That means I’ve spent a third of my life in friendship with these two, and I could not be more grateful. They have seen me at my worst and best, have cheered me through the highs, loved me fiercely through the lows, given me advice, made me laugh, gotten me safely into bed after crazy nights, made me think, inspired me, and listened without judgment even when it seemed impossible for anyone to do so. (The fact that anyone could still love me after the jackass I was at nineteen never ceases to amaze me.)
It’s nothing short of extraordinary—to know where each other has been, to appreciate the person each of us has become, to show up and be family for one another, to inside joke and tease and swell with pride over and love love love the stuffing out of each other—I know I hit the jackpot with these two. And that is worth celebrating, not just this week but again and again and again.
CHAMPAGNE COCKTAILS OF ALL SORTS
I decided to make a handful of different cocktails on a Friday afternoon, and Jill and I endured the hardship of taste-testing them all for you. I focused on easy champagne cocktails that called for extra ingredients that were inexpensive, likely to already be part of your bar, or both. There are many more serious drink-makers out there, with far-better stocked bars than I.
But for summer and/or entertaining, a simple champagne cocktail can’t be beat—book club brunch, backyard happy hour with friends, celebratory dinner, etc. To see other drinks I’m itching to try, check out my Pinterest “for the bar” board. What cocktails are you stirring up this summer?
Classic Champagne Cocktail
This one is Jill’s favorite—a little something special, but not too sweet, and it yields a lovely color. Also, it couldn’t be simpler.
1 sugar cube (equivalent to 1 tsp.)
In the bottom of a Champagne flute, douse the sugar in bitters. After a few minutes, top with Champagne. Enjoy.
Blueberry-Basil Champagne Cocktail
The original idea called for muddling a few fresh blueberries and a few fresh basil leaves in the bottle of a Champagne glass before topping; that was nice, but didn’t yield a ton of flavor.
If I were going to make these again, I’d do this—make a basil simple syrup*, then puree some fresh blueberries with a little basil simple syrup, then pour 1-2 oz. of that mixture into a Champagne flute, then top with Champagne.
Should you try this, do report back.
**To make, combine one cup of water with one cup of sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve the sugar, then remove from heat and toss in a handful of fresh basil leaves. Let the syrup cool, then remove the basil (the longer you leave it in, the stronger basil flavor the syrup will have.)
Lemon-Mint Champagne Cocktail
This idea from Fresh 365 has become a repeat performer in our house, simply because the container of Haagen Dazs lemon sorbet has not yet been used up, and half of our backyard patio has been taken over by mint. This drink is more like a champagne slushy, at once very playful and very grownup.
Spring of fresh mint plus a few extra leaves
1 oz. gin or vodka
1 cup lemon sorbet
Champagne or sparkling wine, to top
Muddle the mint leaves in the bottom of a wide glass. Pour in the liquor, then add the lemon sorbet and give it a little stir. Fill the glass with Champagne and garnish with the spring of mint.
According to Saveur, this cocktail is so named because it was the first drink that astronauts Buzz Aldrin & Neil Armstrong had upon returning to Earth; I love stories like that.
This cocktails is kind of like a more nuanced mimosa; I think you could cheat a little in order to make a pitcher of them by mixing and refrigerating the grapefruit juice & orange liqueur ahead of time. When ready to serve, pour into individual glasses, add a few drops of rose water to each, and top with Champagne.
The rose water really does add a little something to this cocktail—you can easily find an inexpensive bottle of rose water at any Indian or Middle Eastern grocery store.
1 oz. fresh grapefruit juice
1 oz. orange liqueur
2-3 drops rose water
Champagne or other sparkling wine, to top
Shake the grapefruit juice, orange liqueur, and rosewater in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Strain into champagne flute and top with bubbles.
Rosemary Gin Fizz
We don’t have pictures of these because I made them for Rebecca’s bachelorette weekend lunch and they disappeared very quickly! A great drink for a crowd: refreshing & went well with our salad-and-homemade-pizza lunch. (recipe via A Cup of Jo)
Make the rosemary simple syrup ahead of time, and be sure to add extra slices of lemon and springs of fresh rosemary to the pitcher when serving.
1 cup rosemary simple syrup*
1 cup gin (you could also use vodka)
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
1 bottle of Champagne or Prosecco
Combine ingredients in a punch bowl or pitcher—stir very briefly, then serve.
*To make, combine one cup of water with one cup of sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve the sugar, then remove from heat and toss in a few fresh rosemary springs. Let the syrup cool, then remove the rosemary (the longer you leave it in, the stronger rosemary flavor the syrup will have.)
I won’t get to see my mom for Mother’s Day today, since we’re in different states; happily, I will get to see her in just a few days when I fly home to attend a wedding. For today, I figured since my mom’s been mothering me for nearly thirty years, I would like to offer up:
Thirty Things About My Mother
1) She was so glamorous. No wonder she earned such big tips in the years she worked as a bartender.
3) She has two Masters degrees. She earned the first in India, but American universities wouldn’t, at that time, honor foreign graduate degrees. So when she came here she got another one. Oh, and a few years ago, for her job, she took more graduate-level classes–for credit. No biggie.
4) She doesn’t want me to send her flowers, contrary to what all of the Mothers’ Day ads and grocery store displays suggest. An obsessive gardener, my mom has no patience for store bought, greenhouse-grown blooms. She’s much more concerned about the flowers in the ground in her front and back yards. When I was a kid, it was my job to go outside at dusk and coax her to come inside after having spent an entire Saturday digging, weeding, transplanting, watering, and mulching.
5) She never once told me “I’ll tell you when you’re older” or “You’re too young to understand.” Whenever I asked a question—no matter what its nature, or how busy she was—she would find away to answer me.
6) She has this weird thing for Cool Whip. My dad used to make special fun of her, teasing her for eating “foam.” Since my mom is on the same discount grocery card account as me and Jill, we will occasionally get a targeted coupon for the stuff; I send it to mom in the mail to support her little habit.
7) She married my dad after meeting him just twice. In their wedding pictures, my mom looks guarded and my dad looks scared. They both look crazy-young (twenty & twenty-five, respectively) and so beautiful.
8) She left little love notes in my lunchbox for years, which I occasionally got made of for but inwardly cherished. Would that I had saved a few for posterity.
9) She has simply atrocious handwriting. This made it quite convenient to learn how to forge her signature.
10) She loves: pistachio ice cream, peanut butter, the aforementioned Cool Whip, tuberoses, the “f” word, Mexican food, foreign films, anything pickled, sour candy, well-written books in which very little happens, and Jon Stewart.
11) She hates: goat cheese, Christmas card newsletters, the smell of scrambled eggs, fake politeness, Newt Gingrich, last-minute plans, people who do not vote, being called a “widow.”
12) She has mad baby skills. I have never, ever, ever seen a baby who wouldn’t go to her, smile at her, be soothed by her, play with her, etc. The tiny ones can sense her thirty-plus years of experience in early childhood education, I think; at the very least, they know they are safe with her.
13) She curses like a sailor. Seriously, the woman has a fouler mouth than I do. I think it’s hilarious, but I like to pretend to be scandalized by it.
14) She loves classic American rock. When my parents first came here, the only entertainment they could afford was a radio, so she fell in love with the music of the 60s and 70s, and passed that love on to me. She’s the reason that Jill calls me the “jukebox,” because I can sing along to even the most obscure song on the oldies station.
15) She was a tiger mom before it was fashionable—not the scary, chain-you-to-the-piano kind, but the strict, you-will-take-responsibility-or-else kind of mom. She did not let me do everything I wanted to do. She did not reward me for good grades, because good grades were expected. She did not try to be my friend. She tried, and succeeded, in being a relentlessly consistent parent whom I respect, feared a little, and still do my best to honor.
16) She is deadly funny. It’s when she isn’t even trying, of course, that she’ll deadpan or make some kind of sarcastic remark in passing and I snort with laughter.
17) She’s not afraid to tell it like it is. I learned, at some point, that this means one should be careful when asking for her opinion—“Does this outfit look okay?” for example. Veena isn’t one to tell you what you want to hear. I love that about her.
18) She is naturally generous. From her, I learned that you always send people home with leftovers, you make a double batch of an easily freezable food and drop it off at the house of a friend, just because. You send birthday and condolence and congratulations cards in the mail. At the holidays, you give gift cards to the men who mow the lawn, leave trays of cookies for the people who pick up your trash. You always have time to make a pot of tea for a visiting friend.
19) She can make anything taste good, and distinctively hers. I’ve never eaten anything she’s made that wasn’t absolutely delicious. She doesn’t use any recipes, and she taught herself to cook.
20) She cares not a whit for professional sports, but she often sat with my dad in the den, crocheting while he cheered his teams on.
21) She spoiled my dad. His favorite foods were almost all incredibly high maintenance—complicated pickles, fried snacks, meticulously brewed tea—and she indulged him in all of it. I miss him, of course, but almost miss them together more.
22) She is loved by all of my friends. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard “Your mom is so awesome” after someone meets her for the first time.
23) She is organized to a fault. The woman writes more lists, files more files, color-codes more folders and types up more plans than anyone I know.
24) She is brave. To have me, she faced miscarriages and the heartache of infertility. When my dad lost his job in high school, she managed to carry our family without losing her mind and while doing her utmost to preserve our quality of life. Since we lost my dad, she has shown more courage and strength than I knew she had—and I knew she had a lot. I am amazed by and so proud of her.
25) She was, she tells me, giggly and chatty as a kid. I find this very difficult to believe.
26) She’s like an elephant, with reels and snarls of various personal and intellectual trivia: the scientific names of various animals, the names of almost any flowering plant you can point to, various prayers and invocations of half-a-dozen religious traditions, political trivia, pieces of Indian folk wisdom, details about a family vacation we took a fifteen years ago.
27) She has a crazy-accurate sixth sense. If she doesn’t get a good feeling about someone she meets, that bad feeling always proves to be well-founded (I learned this the hard way as a teenager).
28) She made me listen to “Sound Money” on NPR as a kid, because she wanted me to be financially literate. She signed me up for ice skating lessons, because they were on Saturday morning and that way, I’d never ask to watch Saturday morning cartoons.
29) She speaks four languages (Hindi, Punjabi, English, & Urdu).
30) She is going to be the absolute best grandmother in the whole wide world. I cannot wait to watch that happen.
Happy Mother’s Day, Amma. I made you a cheesecake.
CHEESECAKE WITH MINTED BLACKBERRIES
barely adapted from Dan Barber, as published in Gourmet
The cheesecake pictured here was made in my sweet little 6-inch spring form pan; I made the same amount of crust called for in the original recipe, but cut the recipe for filling: 2 packages cream cheese, ½ cup sugar, 2 eggs, ¼ cup half-and-half with a 2 tablespoons removed, 1 ½ T flour, & ½ tsp. vanilla.
My mom prefers a very classic cheesecake recipe, which this is—creamy, not too sweet, dense. If you like a fluffier cake or one with more tang, substitute in fresh ricotta for some of the cream cheese.
If blackberries aren’t your thing, you can serve this cheesecake with all kinds of fresh summer fruit: strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, mango, etc.
for the crust:
6 T unsalted butter, softened
½ cup packed light brown sugar
¾ cup all-purpose or spelt flour
½ cup sliced almonds, finely chopped
oven: 350ºF with a rack placed in the middle
Line a 9-inch square baking pan with two sheets foil, leaving generous overhang on all sides. Lightly butter the foil. Alternately, if using a spring form pan, butter the bottom and sides.
Beat the butter and brown sugar at medium speed, until light at fluffy. Reduce speed and add the flour and almonds, mixing until combined and the dough clumps together.
Press the crust onto the bottom of baking ban (if using a spring form pan, press up along the edges as well).
Bake until the crust darkens a shade and begins to shrink, 20-30 minutes. Cool crust completely in the pan on a wire rack.
for the filling:
3 (8 oz.) packages cream cheese, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup half and half
2 T all-purpose flour
1 tsp. vanilla extract (almond extract is also nice)
oven: reduce to 325ºF.
Beat together the cream cheese, sugar, and flour at medium speed until smooth. Reduce the speed to low and add half and half, then the eggs one at a time, then finally the vanilla.
Pour the filling into the cooled crust, then place in a water bath and bake until nearly set (a tiny bit of wobble in the center is okay). This will take between 40-45 minutes. Cool the cheesecake on room temperature for several hours, then chill, uncovered, in the refrigerator for at least two hours.
If you used the square pan, lift the cheesecake out using the foil overhang, then cut into squares. If you used a spring form pan, run a knife along the edge of the cheesecake before removing the spring form side and slicing.
The cheesecake will keep in the fridge, loosely covered after being fully cooled, for three days.
for the minted blackberries:
2 cups fresh blackberries, rinsed
1 T sugar
1 T mint, finely chopped
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
Combine all ingredients and leave at room temp for 30 minutes. When ready to serve, drain blackberries with a slotted spoon and place atop cheesecake. You can also prepare the blackberries ahead of time and keep in an airtight container in the fridge for a few hours.
The first time I met Jill, she thought I was a Buddhist nun. I was nineteen years old and my hair was buzzed very, very short; part of a why-the-hell-not, let’s-see-what-it’s-like experiment undertaken by my roommate Rebecca and I. Since it was a religion class that I walked into that day, you can understand why Jill assumed what she did—the rest of the campus assumed that Rebecca and I were girlfriends and/or militant, man-hating feminists, but neither of those things were true.
I don’t believe in love at first sight (don’t people really mean lust, anyway?) but I do remember what Jill was wearing that first day, and I remember sitting enraptured for forty-five minutes when I heard her lecture for the first time. I remember knowing, without really knowing how I knew, that I wanted this person to be in my life, in a big way, forever.
It is a tremendous gift, love. To love another and have that love returned. I take it for granted, get caught up in big and little details, worries, and ambitions, as if other things matter more than loving the people in my life—as unselfishly and joyfully as possible, growing in my capacity to give and receive love.
I have been blessed in many, many ways, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Jill is the absolute best thing that ever happened to me. She’s my best friend and my Valentine, and she endorses this dessert.
VANILLA BEAN PANNA COTTA
makes 6-8, depending on the size of the molds/cups you use
Panna Cotta is probably one of the simplest and most adaptable dessert recipes out there; I used vanilla bean because it’s Jill’s favorite flavoring, but you could easily swap in other flavors, like coffee or citrus. This Panna Cotta recipe does not call for much sugar (again, Jill’s preference is for barely-sweet desserts), so feel free to bump up the sugar to 1/3 or even ½ cup, if you so desire.
I served our Panna Cotta as the coda to an early-Valentine’s-Day-at-home, steak-and-champagne dinner, pairing the dessert with some strawberries steeped in David Lebovitz’s red wine sauce: dead simple to make and pairs perfectly with the creamy dessert. You could also serve the Panna Cotta more simply, with almost any fruit of your choice; berries tossed with some Grand Marnier and sugar would be quite nice.
2 cups heavy cream
¼ cup sugar
half of a vanilla bean*
1 packet powdered gelatin
3 T cold water
Pour the cream and sugar into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Split the vanilla bean with a sharp knife, scraping the seeds into the pan. Heat the cream, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove the saucepan from heat, cover, and leave to steep for at least 30 minutes.
In the meantime, pour a bit of neutral oil, like canola, onto a paper towel and lightly coat the inside of whatever containers you plan to use—I used ramekins, but coffee cups or small bowls would work just as well.
In a separate bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water; let it sit for 5-10 minutes. Re-warm the cream, then pour the very warm mixture over the gelatin and stir until dissolved.
Pour the Panna Cotta into the cups, dividing equally. Chill until firm, 2-4 hours. When ready to serve, run a knife along the inside of each cup (I also use a small spoon to help with loosening). Invert each Panna Cotta onto a plate, and garnish as desired.
*You can substitute 1 tsp. of vanilla extract, but you won’t get the same intense vanilla flavor or the specks of vanilla seeds floating on top.
It always works this way.
At the end of the year, or the end of the school year, or the beginning of vacation, I have a couple of days of pure, unadulterated elation, days full of plans: a dinner of seemingly never-ending Lebanese food, cranberry scones with lemon curd for brunch, a Christmas open house with a mariachi band, an evening full of football-watching that leaves empty bottles of wine on the counter for recycling.
But then, somewhere in there, when I’ve reached the bottom of my to-do list, I find myself feeling sad. Like really, unbelievable, out-of-nowhere, sobbing-at-the-kitchen-table sad. Because my father’s still dead. And that still really sucks.
I say this only because I know I am far from the only one for whom the holidays can be really, really hard. When you’ve lost someone—no matter how long it’s been—these days of “home for the holidays” can draw that absence up to the surface, pushing and tugging and scratching the skin. The songs, the signs, the rituals, even the cheesy Christmas commercials, all of them can trigger grief.
So check in on your friends and family, especially if they are going through the “first round” of holidays without a loved one. They may not want company, but they will, I promise, appreciate the compassion.
recipe inspired by Tom Gutting, a tall, friendly guy with a nice smile and a wine blog
You know when you eat something so good that you remember it for months afterward? And you are kind of jealous that you didn’t come up with it yourself? And every once in a while you wish you had more of it to it, right then at that very moment?
And then one day you see oyster & crimini mushrooms at the Farmers’ Market and you think “TODAY IS THE DAY! I will recreate Tom’s mushroom bruschetta!”?
No? That’s never happened to you? Curious .
I’m not sure if I did Tom’s original version justice, but what I came up with sure did taste good.
3 cups chopped mushrooms, mixed variety
2 thick slices of bacon, diced (use 3 or 4 if your bacon’s more thinly sliced)
¼ cup fresh thyme, on the stem, plus a bit more for garnish
a glug (maybe 1/8 cup?) of cognac (substitute red or white wine or sherry)
knob of butter (3-4 T)
for serving: a loaf of crusty bread (a baguette or Italian loaf would work nicely)
chevre or other soft goat’s milk cheese
Cook the bacon in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Depending on the amount of fat that’s rendered, you can pour some off (but don’t pour it out!—store that good stuff in a jar in the fridge, please). Reduce the heat to medium, then throw in the butter, mushrooms, and thyme, sautéing it all until the mushrooms brown.
Add the end, pour in the cognac and deglaze the pan, letting the mixture cook down until the liquid is reduced. Turn off the heat and remove the thyme stems from the pan. Stir in some freshly ground pepper and salt to taste.
To assemble, slice and toast the bread. Spread generously with cheese, then top with mushroom mix. Sprinkle with reserved thyme leaves and serve.
I’ve wanted to make these for a long time.
In July 2008, Gourmet magazine published a very fine piece of food journalism from Ian Knauer and Alan Sytsma. In it, the men visited Madani Halal, one of our country’s many halal butcher shops, which carry out the slaughtering and processing of animals in strict accordance with Islamic law.
Halal is a kind of equivalent to the Jewish system of kashrut, or kosher, both signifying what is “permitted” or “clean” to eat. In accordance with halal standards, all animals must be treated humanely in life—grass-fed only—and slaughtered swiftly in death, one quick cut of the carotid artery coming on the heels of a prayer of thankfulness to Allah for the nourishing gift of the animal’s flesh. It is a dignified, compassionate, and demanding way of doing things.
The men who run Madani Halal are a father-and-son team, Riaz Uddin and Imran Uddin. In the article, Imran asks the chefs to choose a goat, which he then slaughters himself, falling silent for prayer beforehand and sweating afterward. “Do you ever get used to that?” the visitors ask. “No,” he responds.
Imran goest on to tell Knauer & Sytsma that he hopes halal can become a bridge by which Americans can learn about and accept Islam. Though their client population is only 65% Muslim, the rest overflow from other immigrant communities, he admitted “We lost a lot of customers” after 9/11. They faced skepticism from the neighborhood when they acquired more property to expand the shop.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Jill and I both know Muslims; she has worked with many closely. She has traveled to countries with large Muslim populations, like Egypt and Jordan and Turkey. We have been invited to many a beautiful dinner spread, breaking bread with our Muslim friends as they break their Ramadan fasts. And so, for me, there is a huge crevasse of cognitive dissonance between these people I know and the very loud screaming voices I hear about all Muslims can’t be trusted, are of the devil, who hate America, should made to be carry special ID cards.
Someone please explain to me how we manage to so easily lump together a religious group that constitutes a population of 1.5 billion people. Who constitute practically every ethnic group and nationality, who are spread all over the globe living radically different lives from each other. How on earth can anyone justify writing off a mass of people this way? As if they all thought and acted in exactly the same manner, because they fall under the same religious umbrella. I sure hope I’m not expected to claim the world’s population of Hindus as representative of my thoughts & beliefs.
I was born and raised a Hindu, inheriting a group of folks who have clashed with Muslims in India for years, each group lobbing back-and-forth their irrational hatred, their violence, their fear. Of course, the irony is that if my parents had been born just some forty or fifty miles to the West, I might well be a Muslim myself. And then what?
adapted from Gourmet
To make this recipe, I had to find my own halal butcher, which was easy to do here in Houston. I wondered but did not have the courage to ask aloud if it was difficult for the proprietress of the shop to be in the presence of food all day as she fasted for Ramadan. I got myself a goat leg. I drowned it in a smoky tomato-chile sauce and baked it off for three hours, shredded it as it cooled, wrapping it in tortillas alongside my friends. I recommend you do the same.
This recipe is a project, certainly, but the results were as delicious as I had hoped. I will certainly be making it again, most likely as a dinner party dish, since everything can be prepped ahead of time.
3 ½ to 4 lb. goat leg, bone-in*
3 dried guajillo chiles, stems removed
2 dried ancho chiles, stems removed
1 lb. tomatoes
3 garlic cloves
1 ½ tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. vinegar
½ tsp. cumin seeds
5 whole peppercorns
3 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil, dropping in the chiles. Simmer until the chiles are soft & pliable, 10-15 minutes. Drain the soaking water and drop the chiles into a blender. Add the rest of the ingredients (except the goat leg!) and blend until smooth.
Place the goat leg a shallow baking dish and sprinkle with salt. Pour the sauce over the goat meat, turn to coat, then cover the entire dish with foil.
Braise for 3 to 3 ½ hours or until the meat is very tender. Remove from the oven and cool. Once the meat has cooled enough to handle, shred with forks and return it to the sauce-filled baking dish. Discard the bones.
Now whole dish goes back in the oven, covered again, to cook for another half hour. Towards the end of the half-hour, wrap the tortillas in foil and toss them into the oven to warm.
Serves a crowd (8-10) and keeps well. If making ahead, reheat in the oven to serve.
* Ask the butcher to cut the leg into pieces if you don’t have a roasting pan big enough to fit it.
crumbled queso fresco
I wanted something a little bit decadent, for celebration purposes.
You might, like me, be constantly setting aside recipes to try “at some point,” bookmarking blogs and clipping features from the paper, folding down the corners of magazines and dotting the edges of your cookbooks with those handy little sticky flags. Even cooking as much as I do, all of those recipe ideas start to pile up and threaten to overwhelm. Because, let’s face it, most of the time, we come home to cook and are tired, hungry, and working with whatever ingredients we have on hand. We cook from the hip, or rely on tried-and-true standby recipes we practically know by heart.
I think that’s why it feels like such decadence, such a giddy experiment, to go to the store and buy ingredients specifically to cook a particular dish. Especially if you are cooking with something for the first time, as was the case for me with scallops.
Scallops are a favorite of photographer Sonya, but I had always assumed they were a “fussy” ingredient best left to the professionals. Turns out that isn’t at all the case; this dish came together in about twenty minutes but tasted incredibly decadent and restaurant-worthy.
And what are we celebrating? Why the new, improved, shmancy-pants Blue Jean Gourmet, of course! Website changes have been in the works for a couple of months now, but I tried to keep them a secret because there’s nothing that drives me crazy more than someone announcing “Big changes coming soon! Stay tuned!” Much more satisfying to just be able to SHOW you the big changes, no?
We’re still working out some kinks, which is kinda how these things go, so your patience, comments, and suggestions are all very much appreciated. Please update any bookmarks or links—we are now, officially, www.bluejeangourmet.com
Heartiest thanks to all those who helped with this process: my friend Jason Prater, who created my beautiful logo, Gus Tello & Melanie Campbell-Tello, who dreamed up this beautiful design, & their CSS ninja Zane, who brought it all to life.
I think the new look will take some getting used to, like looking at pictures of yourself from a wedding or fancy event. “Who is that person?” It feels a little bit like that…my little blog, all dressed up.
SCALLOPS WITH CREAM AND BASIL
If your mom is a seafood lover, you might want to bookmark this one for Mother’s Day. We served the scallops with crusty bread, but they could easily go over pasta, rice, or Israeli couscous. A lovely Farmers Market salad on the side would complete things nicely.
8-12 sea scallops, dried well with a paper towel
¾ cup heavy cream
½ cup dry white wine
¼ cup chopped shallots (substitute red onion)
1 large garlic clove, sliced thinly
big handful of fresh basil leaves, cut into a chiffonade
a pinch of dried red chili flakes
salt & pepper
Melt 4 T of the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. (Don’t use nonstick, or the scallops won’t brown.) Sprinkle the scallops with salt & pepper. After the butter foams, add the scallops. Brown the scallops on both sides, adjusting the heat as necessary. The goal here is a nice crust on both sides of the scallops—don’t worry about cooking them all the way through.
Remove the scallops from the pan & set aside. Turn down the heat & add the last 2 tablespoons of butter to the pan. Add the shallots, garlic, & red pepper flakes. Cook over medium-low heat for a few minutes, until the shallots soften.
Add the wine and raise the heat so that the mixture will bubble and reduce down by half. Add heavy cream and again, reduce the sauce. When the liquid is nice and thick, return the scallops, with any accumulated juices, to the pan.
Cook for a minute or two more, stirring in half of the basil, until the scallops are firm. Taste and add salt & pepper if necessary. Serve the scallops with sauce, garnishing with the remaining basil.
What do great cooks, teachers, & writers all have in common? They’re thieves.
Intellectual borrowers, if you will. We can’t help it, right? If your senses are trained within a particular context—to notice flavors, say, or word choice—you are bound to absorb, like a sponge, the methods and ideas all around you.
This is a good thing. It cracks your life wide open to a world of possible muses; you never know where or when or by whom you’ll be inspired. As with, for instance, today’s dish.
In graduate school, I didn’t do a lot of eating out. I was watching my pennies, as most graduate students are, and given that I had lots of time at home for writing, I found myself in the kitchen a great deal, stirring away at a pot of something while simultaneously working out an essay in my head. However, often it was essential to leave one’s apartment or house for the communal sanctuary of a coffee house or a café with cheap enough fare and an inclination NOT to kick lingering students out.
At one such café on Fourth Avenue, the main drag of Tucson’s university area, I discovered an intriguing sandwich made with grilled halloumi cheese. For one thing, I had never heard of halloumi before and I sure did like the way it sounded:
It’s like a friendly greeting, only it’s actually a type of cheese, made from sheep’s milk in places like Greece & Cyprus (they got a lot of sheep there, far as I can tell).
But here’s the kicker: YOU CAN GRILL IT. YOU CAN GRILL THE CHEESE.
See? Yeah, it’s pretty tasty stuff—develops a lovely crust on the outside which gives way to chewy, tangy goodness on the inside. You can understand how this inspired me, right?
This is what I came up with: naan or pita bread smeared with sweet mango chutney (yes, the jarred kind—let’s keep this simple, folks!), topped with a warm piece of grilled halloumi, garnished with slow-cooked red onions and fresh cilantro.
Sounds fancy, don’t it? I’ve been serving my newbestfriendforever halloumi at the last few Diwali parties we’ve thrown and it has proven to be a real crowd pleaser, people rushing to their spouses, “You’ve gotta try this!” It’s festive, unusual, and no one will guess that it wasn’t actually that hard to make.
Halloumi’s becoming more and more popular, however it still isn’t carried by most “mainstream” grocers. Check Whole Foods or another specialty store, the safest bet being a Middle Eastern purveyor.
The flavors of this appetizer will also work for a light dinner or lunch—just sandwich bigger pieces of cheese inside a pita or wrap them up with fresh naan. Be sure to throw in the onions, cilantro, & chutney, too!
Caramelize the onions. First, peel the onion & slice it thinly. In a very heavy pot fitted with a lid, heat 1 T butter & 2 T olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the onions gently until they become translucent, then turn the heat down to low.
Cook for about forty minutes with the lid on, stirring regularly until the onions are brown, almost disintegrated, like an onion marmalade.
If you’d like to go the super-fancy route, make rounds from your bread using a biscuit or cookie cutter. If there’s no need to be super-fancy, just cut the bread into about 2-inch wedges. Slather a generous amount of chutney on each piece of bread.
Heat a grill pan over medium-high, coat with olive oil. If you don’t have a grill pan, don’t worry, the halloumi will taste just as good, but it won’t have fancy grill-marks, and those are kind of fun.
Slice the halloumi a half-inch thick. When your pan is quite hot (but not smoking!), grill the cheese in batches, cooking until golden brown on both sides, between 8-10 minutes total.
The halloumi is best when it’s at least warm, if not hot, so cut the pieces carefully to fit on your bread. If you’re doing this process in anticipation of a slew of guests, you can keep the grilled halloumi warm in a low oven. Don’t leave it too long, though! It tastes much better freshly cooked.
Place a piece of halloumi on top of each bread round or wedge. Top with a teaspoon-sized heap of caramelized onion, then garnish with fresh cilantro.