ALL OF THE TOMATOES. ALL OF THEM. SO MANY.

Jill makes things grow; it’s what she does. After a few hours digging around in the dirt, she comes in more vibrant (if smelly). From plumerias to eggplant, she’s happier when she’s growing something, more like herself. She comes by this honestly—raised by two people whose backyard garden was massive, beautifully orchestrated, and ridiculously prolific—she’s now raising Shiv to understand, enjoy, and appreciate how food is grown.

I do not make things grow; instead, I try not to kill them when Jill is out of town. But I fit into this equation nicely, as someone who loves to spend lots of weekend time in the kitchen, figuring out what we should do with a counter piled high with tomatoes and a crisper full of homegrown zucchini & squash. There’s nothing lovelier than being able to walk out to the back patio (or send Shiv!) to grab a handful of mint, or basil, or oregano to toss into whatever’s cooking. And it’s especially gratifying to serve up a meal comprised primarily of ingredients that came from our own backyard.

Since the school year is winding down and the summer winding up, I thought I would share some of my family’s favorite ways to enjoy backyard tomatoes (other than sliced onto a mayo-slathered piece of good bread and topped with salt & pepper, of course). Jill is not a big fan of tomato-based sauces, so I’ve found other ways of using up the bounty. I hope you’ll enjoy these as much as we do.

Favorite tomato recipes from this blog—

Corn & Tomato Pie – it’s high time for me to make the first of these for 2017; this is one of those beloved favorites that makes an excellent summer meal, paired simply with a salad and some dessert. Take it to a potluck, make one for friends who just had a baby, etc.

Indian-Style Tomato Rice—I have fond memories of my mom packing this for me in my lunchbox. Simple but flavorful, keep a batch of this in the fridge and serve on its own, with plain yogurt, or use it as a bed for kabobs or other grilled meats.

Tomato Bread Pudding—this decadent recipe is another one I need to revisit. The perfect dish for a summer brunch, you could certainly switch up the cheeses (Fontina is delicious but $$); just make sure to choose a hard cheese that shreds and melts nicely.

Favorite tomato recipes from elsewhere—

A Diary of Tomatoes: 5 Recipes {via Casa Yellow}
I’ve made all of the recipes in this beautiful booklet from my friend Sarah; no one knows how to handle excess garden bounty better! Her tomato jam is an especially great way to consolidate & preserve your harvest; it’s perfect for all of those hamburgers you’ll be grilling this summer.

Fresh Tomato Tarts {via King Arthur Flour}
This crust recipe is one that I keep in my back pocket, pulling it out when I want to impress people but don’t have the bandwidth to do anything super-laborious. I tend to make the smaller tarts, adding fresh herbs like oregano and basil to the tomatoes before baking.

Pasta Salad with Roasted Tomatoes {via Smitten Kitchen}
I remembered this recipe over the weekend, when the kitchen counter was beginning to be crowded with beautiful yellow-grape and red-cherry tomatoes. Thanks to a recent deal on pine nuts at Trader Joe’s and the gift of feta from our favorite goat farmers, I had everything I needed on hand to make this. I love that the recipe makes a big batch—another great potluck recipe, or something to keep on hand to pack in lunches, whip out when your kid is hungry after swimming for two hours solid, etc.

Ratatouille {via Saveur}
My favorite ratatouille recipe because it’s so hands-off; other than prepping vegetables, the oven does the work here for you. The result is tender and deeply flavorful; you can use it as a sandwich topping, paired with some good cheese, or serve atop couscous for a healthy side.

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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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PERFECT OKRA & POTATOES

It’s that time again. The annual mid-to-late-May, scattered brain blog post.

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After nearly three decades spent lived inside of school years, I feel the rhythm in my bones, in my marrow. Most people catalogue their lives by calendar years, January to December; I think about August to May. This 2014-2015 school year has seen 3 weddings attended, 2 showers thrown, a dozen writing deadlines, a record-breaking 11 sick days, 1 appearance on the NPR website, and 1 potty-trained toddler. Moving from middle to high school, teaching three new classes, creating two of those classes from scratch, relishing the tremendous opportunity to teach many of my students for the second or third time—it has all yielded more personal and professional reward than I could have imagined. I am grateful, proud to have survived, and very, very ready for June.

My juniors are ending the year with Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a short story collection that draws heavily on his experience fighting in Vietnam. Structurally, it is a brilliant piece of work, each story like a spoke of a wheel that circles around the themes of memory, ambiguity, truth, and fiction. Each piece is a masterclass in how to write about things that matter, without knowing exactly how they matter or why. About how to tell the truth without being sure that there is any objective truth to tell.

Line after line, even though I hadn’t anticipated that it would do this, this text is forming the perfect bridge between the end of one season and the start of another, allowing my students and I to reflect on what’s been and what’s to come: the seminal experiences that shape us, the ways we decide who we are, who we will be, what we will do with what life presents us.
“That’s what stories are for. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”

Summer is coming; there are stories to tell. There is a new book to write. There are plane tickets: to the west coast for a graduation, to the east coast for (another!) wedding. There is a road trip planned, practically a summer requirement. There is a little boy who loves to swim and consume epic amounts of watermelon. There is okra coming up in the backyard.

 

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(^tiny photo-shoot-interrupting okra thief)

PERFECT OKRA & POTATOES

Source: Tom Hirschfield via Food52

Jill and I fell in love with this dish last year, but each time I made it (and there have been many), we ate it all before we remembered to take any photographs. This dish is truly more than the sum of its parts—doesn’t sound like much when you read through the recipe, but the method transforms the ingredients, yielding perfect texture on both the okra (no slime here!) and the potatoes. The hit of garlic at the end is just right, and while the original recipe calls for a finish of fresh basil, we found that we like it better without.

Pair this dish with another sublime-and-crazy-easy seasonal dish—this blistered corn-off-the-cob—make a caprese salad with beautiful, fresh tomatoes, and call it dinner. Man I love the summer.

PS: If for some reason you end up with leftover okra-and-potatoes, it makes a wonderful bed for a fried egg breakfast.

ingredients:

russet potatoes*
okra*
1-2 cloves garlic, depending on your preference
salt & pepper, to taste
canola or another neutral oil, like peanut

*You want equal amounts of small-dice russet potatoes & sliced—thin but not sliver-thin—okra. Scale however you like, but it’s easiest if you have a pan big enough to cook everything in an even layer. I usually use 2 small russets & probably 20 okra pods.

Heat a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, over medium-high heat and add enough oil to generously coat the bottom. Add the okra, spreading them out evenly, and season with salt & pepper. Leave the okra alone until the undersides are brown, then add the potatoes, tossing everything around and breaking up any chunks of potato. Add a bit more oil to the pan, if needed. Season again with salt & pepper.

Keep an eye on the potatoes, turning down the heat so that they don’t burn, and turning them occasionally. Remember, they won’t brown if you mess with them too much, so keep an eye on the pan but mostly leave it alone to do its thing. (In my experience, the dish takes about 20-25 minutes on the stove from start to finish.)

Once the potatoes have browned and are tender (fork test!), add the garlic and mix it in well. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook for just one or two more minutes, until the garlic is fragrant. Taste and add more salt/pepper if needed. Serve hot!

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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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GAZPACHO

Last week, my in-laws came to visit for the Fourth of July.  We see them more often now—every 4-6 weeks, as opposed to every 2-3 months—than we did before Shiv was in the picture.  Behold, the power of the grandchild.

gazpacho | Blue Jean Gourmet

Having Jill’s parents here, or going to visit them disrupts our normal family schedule and seriously messes with our generally pretty healthy eating habits, but when I hear Shiv on the floor, squealing with delight as he plays with his Papaw, or get to watch Jill’s mother’s face light up when her grandson smiles at her, there’s no question that it’s worth it.

This visit, though, the most valuable and memorable experience I had wasn’t about Shiv at all; it was the twenty extraordinary minutes I spent with my mother-in-law, while everyone else was out running an errand.

My mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s; she is in some kind of middle stage, with a practically non-existent short-term memory and total inability to complete tasks.  She is easily confused, and repeats herself a lot: asking the same questions over and over, reading us the same story from the paper five or six times in the course of a morning.

There is no part of this that isn’t awful.  There’s watching my father-in-law watch his best friend of fifty-five years slowly lose her mind, there’s watching him watch her—his grief, his denial, his futile hope that she will “get better,” there’s watching her in the moments that she becomes embarrassed by her inability to remember or tries to cover up the fact of her forgetting.  There’s watching Jill gently answer the question “Whose baby is this?”

But every once in a while, the clouds part, the fog is lifted away, and there are brief, fleeting glimpses of the blazingly competent, inexhaustible, opinionated woman that she once was.  Such were the twenty minutes I got to spend with her last week, listening to her tell stories of her days as an ER nurse in the 1950s.  About how rewarding the work was, and how she misses it; about the days she went home and cried, but never in front of patients; about meeting Jill’s father, a detective with the Shreveport Police Department, at the hospital when he had to bring in a suspect to be stitched up.

I believe in the power of stories—telling them, listening to them.  I am so grateful for that twenty-minute reminder of the deeply human person who is trapped inside of my mother-in-law’s uncooperative mind and aging body; it is easy to forget her, sometimes, when I am frustrated at having to repeat myself or move around the dishes that she puts away in all the wrong places.

The stories we tell become who we are; if we don’t get to tell them, things get lost.  Go ask someone—your parent, your spouse, your grandparent, your child—to tell you a story.   Then listen.

GARDEN GAZPACHO

After the parade of fried things that comes with a visit from the in-laws, I was craving fresh, fresh vegetables.  Also, it’s approximately a zillion degrees in South Texas right now, so easy, no-cook dinners are a win for everyone.   The tomatoes came courtesy Jill’s parents’ garden, the cucumber my mom’s, and the onion, bell pepper, & jalapeno were from ours.

gazpacho ingredients | Blue Jean Gourmet

We paired this gazpacho with a light salad topped with leftover shrimp, some wine, and ate cherries for dessert.  I heart you, summer.

ingredients:

2 ½ lb. tomatoes
2 cups cubed bread
½ cup almonds
½ large red onion, peeled & roughly chopped
2 small or 1 large bell pepper, seeded & roughly chopped
1 cucumber, peeled & roughly chopped
1 jalapeno, seeded & roughly chopped (or leave seeds in for a spicier soup)
3 cloves of garlic, smashed
4 T sherry vinegar
½ cup olive oil
salt & pepper

serve with: sliced avocado, crumbled feta, and/or homemade croutons

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and process using a stick blender.  Alternatively, process in an upright blender, working in batches if necessary.  Taste and season accordingly.  I found that I didn’t need to thin my soup at all, but you can do so with olive oil or water if you like.

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BIG BOOST SALAD

I want to tell you what the forests
were like
I will have to speak
in a forgotten language
-W.S. Merwin

farro salad | Blue Jean Gourmet

I want to tell stories. I want to talk about what is lost when the storytellers leave us, even if their stories remain.

I want more words. I want a word for the feeling that fills my chest when I lean over to kiss my sleeping baby in his crib, before I go to sleep myself at night. I want a word to call my friends for whom “friend” sounds a cheap and flimsy wrapping given what they know of me, what they’ve witnessed, what they have vigiled at my side.

I want my students to come alive. I want them to unabashedly give a damn. I want them to know that I see them, that I can see under their fourteen year old skins, straight through the girls’ ponytails piled impossibly high and the boys’ hair tousled just so, right into the heart of who they are, who they are trying to be, and they are so beautiful, even when they are being complete and total pains in the ass.

I want to say it forever, all of the time, to everyone; I am here. You are here. This is all that there is.

I want to write more letters. And a play someday, too.

I want to speak about the good work being done in the world, like the juvenile court judge we know who changed his court hours to remain open late on Tuesday nights so that the kids won’t have to miss school to come to court.

I want to carry the sharp-edged knowledge of what constitutes “real” that I felt in the weeks following my father’s death and during the daze containing Jill’s rounds of chemotherapy, around with me in a jar, like a potion or an essential oil.

I want to point out that breathtaking acts of love and compassion happen all around us, all of the time.

I want to speak about how these things are connected: the happiness of friends with new lovers, the fear of friends with secrets, the way good changes can still leave you mourning what was lost, and the strange shape of what’s left over when you discover a part of yourself you had no idea was there.

I want to tell the truth. I don’t want to be afraid.

farro salad | Blue Jean Gourmet
BIG BOOST SALAD

The name of this salad came off of a little recipe card that accompanied a gift of farro that my friend Courtney brought me from the Eugene, Oregon Farmers Market. According to her, the two delightful older ladies who sold the farro were very insistent that Courtney also take some recipe cards along “for your friend.”  One of those recipes was for a version of this very virtuous, filling, and tasty salad, which I (the aforementioned “friend”) have adapted. And so, my thanks goes out to the Farmers Market ladies of Eugene for their insistence and the inspiration.

There are certainly many variations to be had here: substitute red onion for the green, throw in handfuls of fresh herbs, use black beans instead of soybeans, etc.  The recipe makes a large amount, but the good news is that it gets better as it sits in the fridge for a few days.  The dressing recipe was inspired by my lovely friend Jess over at Sweet Amandine.

for the salad:

1 cup farro (rinsed & cooked)
1 cup quinoa (rinsed & cooked)
2 cups shelled soybeans (I used frozen & steamed according to the package)
2 cups cubed & roasted sweet potato
1 cup pomegranate seeds
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
½ sliced or chopped almonds
1 bunch green onion, sliced into thin rounds

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and toss to combine.  When ready to serve, portion individual servings into bowls and drizzle with dressing.

for the dressing:

1/3 cup olive oil
2 T pomegranate molasses
1 T fresh lemon juice
2 tsp Dijon mustard

Combine all ingredients in a jar and shake to combine.  Taste and adjust, adding salt and pepper at the end.

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RAS EL HANOUT

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

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

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

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

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

RAS EL HANOUT RECIPE
recipe from Cook Almost Anything

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

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

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

ingredients:

2 teaspoons coriander seeds

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon cardamom seeds

½ teaspoon fennel seeds

½ teaspoon black peppercorns

½ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon cayenne

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon salt

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

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

 

MOROCCAN CHICKPEAS & ROASTED VEGETABLES
adapted from Gourmet, May 2008

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

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

ingredients:

½ head cauliflower, cut into 1-inch florets

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

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

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

3 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced lengthwise

1 15-oz. can diced tomatoes

2 cups cooked chickpeas*

½ cup dried Turkish apricots, halved

1 cinnamon stick

2 tsp. ras-el-hanout

1 tsp. honey

¾ tsp. red-pepper flakes

water

olive oil

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

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

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

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

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

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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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