APRIL IS…

I don’t know if it is the cruellest month, but this year, for me, April is the weirdest.  Most discombobulating.  Very difficult to classify.  Kind of a blur.

According to my journal and my bank statement (with an assist here & there from my actual memory), these are things I did in April of 2011: held court in a hospital waiting room, participated in a very hilarious, student-masterminded April Fool’s day plot involving a fellow teacher, lots of raisins, & a stapler encapsulated in Jell-O, bought a bottle of bourbon for a friend who moved into his first solo apartment, ate a chocolate cupcake for Easter breakfast, received & sent an obscene number of text messages, jumped on a trampoline at a backyard happy hour, booked a ticket to Atlanta to attend the engagement party of the woman who’s basically my little sister, drove Jill home from the hospital, drove Jill back to the Emergency Center the very next day, laughed a lot, cried once, graded a metric ton of student papers, and spent a blissful hour by the neighborhood pool with my headphones and a book.

Yesterday would have been my dad’s 69th birthday.  That’s crazy, right?  Just one year away from 70, which feels like a formidable number.  I think my father would have made a good seventy-year-old.  He would be excited about the Grizzlies being in the playoffs.  He would be dropping un-subtle hints about his desire to be a grandfather.  He would, I think, be very proud of me.


But to hell with all the warm & fuzzy imaginative shit.  I want to drink beer with my dad.  I want to break down the news with him: Syria, the Presidential birth certificate, and on and on.  I want to cook him dinner (duh) and hear him sing and see him smile.

You know what else I want?  To be on my A game, all the time.  To know what the next few months will (and won’t) bring.  To be able to actually say what I feel.  To fly like the purple martins in my backyard.  And even though I know I will never, ever have these things, my desire for them does not cease.

Me and my desire asked some friends to come over last Saturday.  I made a little spread of things my dad would have loved: buttermilk biscuits (some with lard, some without), crazy-expensive imported jamon (which the dog, it turns out, is also a fan of), sliced radishes & dill on good, buttered bread, cucumbers with Indian black salt, fruit salad, guacamole, freshly squeezed orange juice, and Bloody Marys (made with the first good heirloom tomatoes of the year).  My friends brought along things their dads would like, which added deviled eggs, sausage kolaches, beer, chips & salsa, pickled garlic, & a Bakewell tart to the table.  We ate, we sat around.  It meant something to me.

Were it not for all this wanting, I might lead some other kind of life.  If desire is a fuel (and I think it is), then I believe I shall let it move me, all the way into the month of May.

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ALMOND-ORANGE TEA CAKES

I’d like to make an exhortation, if you’ll indulge me.

Go have the conversation nobody wants to have; talk to the people in your life about how you do and do not want to die.  Get them to do the same for you.  Be clear, even if it’s painful.  Put it in writing and get that writing notarized.  Make sure everyone knows where the papers are.  Please.  Do it right now.

These things are hard to think about, or talk about, or plan for.  But I speak from experience when I say that they are among the greatest gifts you can give your family, even as you vehemently hope they will never have to use them.  Because four years ago, I did.

I miss my dad; I don’t think that’s ever going away.  But I also know that my mother and I were able to make the medical decisions that he would have wanted us to make.  We did not have to guess, or wonder.  And while there is much else painful about the way I lost my dad, that certainty is a clear patch of bright relief.

So there you have it—the only piece of advice I’ll ever dispense on this blog.  It is what seemed right, more than anything else, on this day.

Subhash Chander Mehra
April 27, 1942 – July 22, 2006


ALMOND ORANGE TEA CAKES

adapted from a recipe I clipped from Martha Stewart Living years ago

This may have been my dad’s favorite thing that I make.  These little cakes are decadent (hello butter!), a little fussy (you can omit the candied orange peel, but I wouldn’t), and go perfectly with a cup of tea, all qualities my dad valued.

1 2/3 cup powdered sugar, plus more for garnish
1 cup almonds, toasted
¾ cup unsalted butter, melted
½ cup flour
6 egg whites, slightly beaten
zest of 2 oranges, chopped fine
1 T orange blossom water, also called orange flower water (optional)
¼ tsp. salt

oven: 450˚
pans: mini loaf pans or ramekins, buttered & stored in the freezer

Grind the almonds to a near-paste in the food processor.  Turn out into a large bowl, then stir in powdered sugar, flour, salt, & zest.  Whisk in egg whites, then slowly stir in the melted butter and orange blossom water (if using).

Pour batter into pans, then place on a baking sheet for easy transfer.  Bake until the dough just begins to rise, about ten minutes.  Reduce the oven to 400˚ and continue to bake another 8-10 minutes or until the cakes brown.  Turn the oven off but leave the cakes in for another 10 minutes.  (I know this seems like a crazy method, but it works. Trust me.)

Cool the cakes on a rack, then turn out and serve warm or at room temperature, with a dusting of powdered sugar and/or strips of candied orange peel (recipe follows).

CANDIED ORANGE PEEL

zest of 3-4 oranges
sugar
water

Cover the zest with water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.  Once boiling, drain the zest in a colander and repeat the boiling process.  Do this a total of three times, to remove the bitterness from the pith.

Rise out the saucepan, then add 1 ½ cups of water and 1 cup of sugar.  Bring to a boil, letting the sugar dissolve to make a simple syrup.  Add the zest and let the strips of orange simmer in the syrup until they become translucent.

Cool, then store the zest in the fridge, with or without the syrup.  I like to use the latter in cocktails, especially margaritas or Cosmopolitans.

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RADISHES, TWO WAYS

Today, April 27th, 2010, would have been my father’s sixty-eighth birthday.  And so:

SIXTY-EIGHT THINGS ABOUT MY DAD

1)    He loved radishes, which is why they are featured here.  I always eschewed them myself, but a few weeks ago, I figured it was time to teach myself to like them, for his sake.  As silly as it sounds, it’s comforting to mirror his eating habits, to remember him in the kitchen or at the dinner table.  And as it turns out, radishes are delicious.  There are some in my crisper right now, fresh from the Farmers Market.  Two ideas for how to enjoy them follow this list.

2)    About Farmers Markets—my dad was a regular attendee.  Every Saturday morning in the spring and summer, he showed up to pick the best cucumbers and tomatoes from the stalls of West Tennessee family farmers.  A few weeks after he died, I went in his absence and had to break the news to several kind folks who had set aside the nicest baby cucumbers for him.  They sent me home with them and wouldn’t let me pay.

3)    He had the loveliest handwriting, which I sadly did not inherit.  Elegant and sloping, but frustrating for teenage me as I tried to teach myself to forge it, with little success.

4)    When I got my period for the first time, he congratulated me for becoming a woman and made me pancakes.  I was totally mortified.  Now I’m totally endeared.

5)    He also had a beautiful singing voice, one he was born with.  He sang at dinner parties, weddings, and in the bathtub on Saturday afternoons.

6)    The man took epic naps.

7)    He called me “Nito,” the pronunciation of which I can only compare to “Quito,” as in the capital of Ecuador.

8)    I have that nickname in two precious places—on half a second’s worth of voice recording from our trip to India, and tattooed in his handwriting on my lower back.

9)    I was in the room when he died.  I am strangely proud of the fact that I watched my father die.

10)    When he was angry, he didn’t yell.  He was calm instead, which was much scarier.

11)     He didn’t have much hair to speak of atop his head after the age of twenty-five.

12)     He owned more pairs of shoes than my mom, and was fastidious about shining them regularly.

13)     I inherited his love of shoes.

14)     The smell of shoe polish still reminds me of him.

15)     When he ate spicy food, which he loved to do, sweat would bead up on his forehead.

16)     One of many reasons, I think, that he always carried a handkerchief.

17)     He was a total nerd with a mind for numbers.  A teacher now, I imagine what he would have been like as a student: conscientious, eager, easy to smile.

18)     I think he would have made a fantastic teacher.  I think he wished he had become one.

19)     He was, for a good handful of years, a volunteer tutor.  One young man was so grateful for the math help—which allowed him to bump up his grades & earn a college basketball scholarship—that he always left tickets at the box office for my dad when they played games in Memphis.

20)     Then there were the pies that came at Christmastime, along with a pot of spicy greens, from the women for whom he was a literacy tutor.  Many of them were grandmothers and wanted to be able to read to their grandchildren.

21)     Now, lest you think my father was some kind of saint (or that I am remembering him that way), he wasn’t.  He was a flawed, complicated, frustrating human being.

22)     Once, he was so upset that I had driven from Houston to Memphis (a whole nine hours!) over one Fall Break in college to surprise him and my mom that he made me swear I would not drive across a state line by myself in the dark until I turned twenty-five.

23)     Actually, his initial deal was “until you get married.”

24)     And I was like, “Um, Dad?  We might be waiting a while on that one.”

25)     When I first came out to him, he didn’t speak to me for three months.  It was my senior year of high school.

26)     I still have a long letter from him in which he explained how disappointed he was in my “choice.”

27)     For most of my time in college, all we managed to talk about on the phone was the weather, sports, and food.

28)     We always had food.

29)     That man taught me to love food, and I’m grateful.  He taught me how to be in love with food, actually, how to go to bed thinking about what you’ll eat when you wake up, to make sure everyone in your dinner party ordered something different so you could try lots of things, to eat off of street food carts and in little hole-in-the-wall places.

30)     Aside from radishes & cucumbers, Subhash’s favorites included: grapefruit, almonds, pecans, anything fried, rajmah chawal (Indian-style red beans & rice), and all kinds of peppers.

31)     One of my proudest food memories is my dad encouraging me to try escargot, around the age of ten, and being delighted when I didn’t “eww” or spit it out.

32)     I used to have VERY short hair.  I started growing it out a few years ago to appease him.

33)     I also pierced my ears—something he had always wanted me to do—after he died.  When I wear long, dangly earrings, in my mind, it’s for him.

34)     He was not a coffee drinker.  My father was a hard-core, old-school, British-style tea drinker.

35)     So hard-core, in fact, that on family outings to Waffle House for breakfast, he took to bringing his own hot water along, IN A THERMOS, because he wanted it to be boiling so that the tea might properly steep.

36)     You might understand why my mother & I often referred to him as “His Highness.”

37)     To save his life, the man could not dance. Zero sense of rhythm.

38)     Thank goodness, I inherited my sense of rhythm from my mother.

39)     But, for my nice legs, I can thank my dad.

40)     He wasn’t a very “macho” man.  I think a fierce connection to his mother and to two older sisters softened him a little.  He wasn’t one to posture or preen.  He felt comfortable around women, but he wasn’t uncomfortable around men.  He just didn’t do that sarcastic, joke-y ribbing that men often engage in, and that set him apart.

41)     Sports, though—he loved sports.  He would watch any and all sport, televised or live.  He taught me how to follow football and that cursing at the television loudly is both therapeutic and effective.  He would have LOVED fantasy football.

42)     I think my dad and Jill could have bonded over so many things, fantasy football being one of them.  I wish he could have seen her as a caring, loving, presence in my life.  I think if he had met her in some other context, he would have found her funny, charming, razor-sharp.  But context, you know, is decisive.

43)     One of his most prized possessions (he didn’t really prize possessions, much) was his 1981 burgundy Mercedes.  It was one of those old diesel tanks that was a pain in stop-and-go traffic but purred like a kitten on the highway.  His success in America, the fact that he had “made it,” all of his hard work and sacrifice—were embodied in that car.  I have very distinct memories of my young back-of-thigh skin sticking to the leather seats in the hot summer.

44)     Some people recently moved into our neighborhood, only a few houses down, and they have just the same car, my father’s car, parked in their driveway.  It’s been weeks now and I still swivel my head, hoping to catch sight of him.

45)     He was twenty-five when he married my mom.  She was twenty.  He told me, several times, that when he first met her he was struck with how beautiful and well-spoken she was.  “She was brave.”  And she still is.

46)     My earliest memory is of my father crying because his father was dead.

47)     My mom took the phone call from India; my dad was at work.

48)     I didn’t see him cry again for a dozen years.

49)     The next time was before his open-heart surgery; a triple bypass.  I was a freshman in high school.  He cried much more easily after that, and kept a Frankenstein scar on his left leg where they had taken artery away.

50)     He loved America.  He was so proud to be a citizen of this country.

51)     He liked it when I read aloud to him.  He also liked to listen in while I practiced piano.  He would sit in a blue armchair that often served as the picture-taking spot for our family.

52)     Lord only knows how many family pictures we have in front of that damn blue chair.

53)     There are also a lot of pictures of my mother and I rolling our eyes at him, because he is taking yet ANOTHER picture on family vacation.  Especially hilarious—the series of bison shots from our Utah/Wyoming/Montana state park trip.  No offense to bison, but they all look the same to me.

54)     He would have made an excellent, excellent grandfather.  If I hate anything most of all, it’s probably that he didn’t get to do that.

55)     But he did act as surrogate to lots of kiddos of family friends, unafraid to get down on the floor and play imagination games, to hold little chicken-folded newborn babies, grinning from ear to ear.

56)     He liked to spoil me.

57)     He cooked exactly three things better than my mom did: pancakes, peelay chawal (Indian-style yellow rice), & refried beans.

58)     His refried beans were astonishingly good—completely vegetarian, for my mom’s sake—but you’d swear they had lard in them.  I wish to God I had gotten that recipe before he died.

59)     What’s truly comforting is that my father was not, I think, a man with many regrets at his deathbed.  He enjoyed his pleasures, was affectionate with those he loved, and paced his days well.  I’m not certain exactly how to measure a life, but I know that he measures up.

60)     Though he claimed “not to care for sweets,” he ate everything I ever baked (another thing he and Jill would have in common).

61)     He also developed Type II Diabetes as an adult.

62)     And, as we discovered in the glove compartment of the Mercedes when he died, snuck candy behind my mom’s back.

63)     He really, really loved my mom.  Mom, are you reading this?  He loved you so much.

64)     Which is kind of extraordinary, considering that they were basically thrown together in an arranged marriage.  My mom always said, “We got married, had sex, then fell in love.  Please do it in different order.”

65)     Oh and the snoring. Snoring like to wake the neighbors.

66)     He was a pain in the ass at a buffet.  High-maintenance as he was, he liked to wait until things came out fresh and hot, which meant that a trip to a buffet might well be a three-hour affair.  Which meant lots of games of tic-tac-toe for me and Mom on a kids’ menu at Shoney’s.

67)     One of the proudest things I’ve ever done was take my first “real” paycheck and march into a store to buy my dad two really, really nice dress shirts.  You know, brushed Egyptian cotton, the whole thing?  He wore one the day I graduated from college and it’s hanging in my closet now.

68)     I guess this one goes without saying, but I really, really miss him a lot.

RADISHES, TWO WAYS

raw:

Scrub radishes clean under cold water.  Trim ends, slice extremely thin.  Layer atop a toasted slice of French bread and a slather of really good butter.  Sprinkle generously with sea salt.

Repeat.

roasted:

Preheat oven to 450˚.  Scrub the radishes clean under cold water, dry thoroughly.  Toss with a little olive oil, salt, pepper, & (optional) fresh thyme.  Roast in a shallow baking dish for 20 minutes, then turn the heat down to 400˚ and roast another 15-20.  When you can pierce the radishes easily with a knife, they’re ready.

Succulent alone, roasted radishes also make a wonderful side for pork chops or as a component for a wilted salad—top bitter greens such as arugula or dandelion with the diced, still-warm radishes, add goat cheese & some croutons, dress with a balsamic.

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THE FOOD OF MY PEOPLE: LAMB KOFTA

One of the hardest things about losing my dad is that there are just so many things I’d like to cook for him.

After a certain passage of time, the distinguishable presence of a loved one begins to fade—the distinct quality of their voice, the shape of their face in three dimensions, the particular quirks and habits.  It becomes more difficult to guess what they might have said in a particular situation, how they would react to a comment or a joke, what books you might recommend to them now, or what movies you would take them to.  I find it terrifying, in fact, the way passage of time seems to make it increasingly difficult for me to conjure up my father the way he was, the way he might be now.

Difficult, too, because the more time that goes by, the more different I am, perhaps unrecognizable to him.  My dad died before I earned a Masters degree, before I got my first full-time job, before I bought myself a car and did my own taxes and grew my hair out long and then cut it again.

I hate that he has missed all of this, and I have missed him in it.  I have wondered, doubted, that I might be forgetting him, losing him.

But the one place I still feel certain of him is in the kitchen.  I know, instinctively, the dishes he would want, the moment he would sneak a warm treat from the oven, the recipes that would dazzle him and make him proud.  This is one of them.

LAMB KOFTA

These lamb meatballs are rich, satisfying, and incredibly flavorful.  They also freeze well, so feel free to make a big batch!

meatballs:

1 lb. ground lamb
½ basin (chickpea flour)
½ cup crumbled paneer*
¼ cup cilantro, roughly chopped
½ onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 T garam masala
2 tsp. ground coriander
2 tsp. cumin
½ tsp. red mirchi (pepper)

Sauté the onion & garlic in a bit of vegetable oil until soft.  Once they cool, toss them into a big bowl with the rest of the meatball ingredients.

Using your hands, form meatballs about an inch in diameter.  (I like to keep them on a sheet pan until they’re all ready.)  Once you’re ready, heat a cup of vegetable oil in a deep saucepan over medium-high heat.  Fry the meatballs until light brown, approximately four minutes on each side.

If you want to freeze or keep the meatballs separate from the gravy, you can finish them in a 350˚ oven, which should take only 10-12 minutes.  If you’re planning to serve them, just keep them to the side or in a low oven while you make the gravy.

gravy:
2 large (28 oz.) cans diced tomatoes
1 pint sour cream
½ cup whole almonds
½ large red onion, sliced
3 T ginger, chopped
3 T garlic, chopped
2 tsp. whole cumin
2 tsp. whole coriander

In a large, heavy bottomed pot, heat a quarter cup of vegetable oil over medium-low heat until it shimmers.  Add the cumin and wait for it to crack before tossing in the garlic, ginger, & onion.  Cook for a few minutes, then add the almonds and whole coriander.

Cook it all down until soft, and the onions are translucent, adding more oil during the cooking if necessary.  This whole process will take about fifteen minutes.

Toss in the tomatoes and stir everything together.  If you have an immersion blender, go ahead and put it to work.  If you’re using a conventional blender, allow the mixture to cool before blending it in batches.  Process until the mixture has reached your desired texture (I like mine a little bit chunky).

Add the sour sour cream to the gravy, mixing thoroughly until it turns light pink.  Reheat the gravy over medium heat until bubbling—be sure to stir regularly so it doesn’t stick to the bottom.  Add the partially cooked meatballs to the gravy and let them finish cooking there.

Serve over basmati rice, garnish with cilantro.

*Many of you may be able to buy paneer, which is a mild Indian cheese, at a specialty grocery store.  If not, you can make your own (it’s actually very easy!) or substitute a similar soft, mild cheese: farmer’s cheese, queso fresco, or a ricotta.  If you’re using ricotta, which can sometimes be watery, squeeze it out in a cheesecloth first.

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POACHED PEARS WITH POMEGRANATE

We’re reaching the end of pomegranate season here, which makes me a little sad.

There’s something downright seductive about the jewel-bright and difficult seeds of the fruit that tempted Persephone in the Underworld, the same fruit from which grenadine was originally made, its fuschia infamously staining to fingers, lips, pants, and shirt-fronts.

For years my father peeled me pomegranates. It was the only time I saw him wear an apron, seemingly wine-stained and spattered, tied delicately around his waist. He would buy the fruit by the case and shuck them, like pearl-laden oysters, by the half-dozen. Every fall a Tupperware container full of seeds kept constant in my family’s refrigerator, rid of their pith and ready for my consumption.

So now, the seemingly pain-in-the-ass task of undoing a pomegranate, exploring its honeycombed chambers and gently prying out the fruit (which is much easier to do when the pomegranate is submerged in a bowl of water, by the way)—it has become a kind of enactment for me, something deliberate and meaningful, connected to him and memory.

Also, you know, pomegranates are just plain delicious. You can use them in desserts or salads but I just like to throw back giant handfuls and chomp away. A few weeks ago, for a book club brunch, I wanted to make a fruit salad with some pomegranate seeds I had stored up in the fridge. The only other fruit I had in the house, though, were some Bosc pears, my go-to morning “It’s 10:00 and I am HUNGRY but it’s too early to each lunch, isn’t it?” snack.

In order to fancy things up a bit, I poached the pears before serving them with the pomegranate seeds, pouring a bit of the reduced poaching liquid over the whole dish.  My lovely book club ladies raved, and so I had to pass the idea along. This little dish would make a wonderful addition to a weekend brunch and could also serve as a light, elegant dinner party dessert.

POACHED PEARS WITH POMEGRANATE

Even when pomegranates are not available as an accompaniment, poached pears can be an elegant dessert. You can serve them warm, with ice cream, atop a tart or cake, alongside butter cookies, or with some cinnamon-spiked whipped cream.

When choosing a wine for poaching, go with something you know and like. Of course, a sweeter white will work well, as will a white with fruit or spice notes.

ingredients:

1 bottle white wine (I used this Viognier)

3-4 Bosc or Anjou pears

¼ cup sugar

1 cinnamon stick

1 whole vanilla bean

5-6 cardamom pods, lightly smashed

3-4 whole cloves

seeds from one pomegranate half

Pour the wine into a heavy saucepan, tossing in the spices. Add the sugar & stir until it dissolves. Heat the poaching liquid over medium heat until small bubbles form and wisps of heat rise from the top of the pan.

While waiting for the liquid to simmer, peel & core the pears. You may wish to poach them in halves, for a dramatic presentation, or in quarters or even slices—it’s up to you. Depending on how you slice them, you may have to poach in batches.

Once the liquid’s ready, cook the pears until they are tender, approximately 15-20 minutes. Adjust the heat so that the liquid does not come up past a gentle boil. When the pears are done, remove them and set aside, either to cool or to serve.

Strain the spices out of the saucepan and crank up the heat, bringing the liquid up to a boil. Reduce as much or as little as you like—there’s no wrong way to do this! Serve the pears warm or cold, on a bed of pomegranate seeds & doused with some of the syrupy liquid.

(Chances are, you’ll have at least a cup or two of poaching liquid/syrup leftover. Don’t throw it out! You can use it to moisten a pound or layer cake, combine it with powdered sugar for a flavorful icing, or play around using it as a cocktail mixer.)

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ALMOND COCONUT BARS

[Inspired by this blog, which you ought to check out.  Rachael’s writing is addictive & she’s rather swell in person, too.]

This post is a little behind.

Normally, I post on Fridays.
But that was not to be this week.  The confluence of
end-of-the-semester business,
start-of-holiday-season events,
and the regular to-do list
did me in.

Of course, I recognize
that the problem
of not posting your blog
on the day to which you (and your readers)
are accustomed
is a first-world problem.

I think all of my problems
(if you can really call them that) fall
into that category.  I am committed
to being cognizant of that
as close to
all-of-the-time
as possible.

It’s easy to lose perspective in this mad-cap world.

My parents’ anniversary was also this week.  Or would have been.  Or something.
Verb tenses get so messed up
when someone dies.

December 8, 1967.
That was a long time ago.
My mom was twenty.
My dad was twenty-five.

They were little.  Younger than I am now
and so good-looking.

Weren’t they just?  If they don’t look
very excited to you,
there’s a good reason for that.

It was only the third time
they had ever met.
I know, right?
Arranged marriage & whatnot.

There’s actually a very fascinating
longer version
of the story
in which my mom
rejected some other dude

(and thank goodness she did, or
somebody we know
would not be sitting here right now)

but I am saving the longer version
of the story
for my book.
So you’ll just have to wait for it.

There are a lot of things
I miss about my dad.

The scariest thing about losing someone
when you least expected it
is that you live in fear
of forgetting
what they looked like
and smelled like
and the sound of their voice
saying your name.

Luckily I have that.
In a forty-second clip
from our trip to India
which we took
a month before he died.

Sometimes I just listen to it
over and over again
and cry.

And then I usually cook something—
(that’s my solution to every problem, really)
something he would like
something he would want to eat
something he would be proud of me making.

These almond-coconut bars were his favorite.
He had a knack
for waking up from his nap
(he used to take the most epic naps)
just as these suckers
were ready to come out of the oven.

He liked to eat things
PIPING
hot.  I don’t know how he did it.

I wish he were here
to sneak some now
and say, “Don’t tell your mother”
while winking conspiratorially.

I keep waiting
for him to show up
even though I know
he won’t.

ALMOND COCONUT BARS

1 ½ cup graham cracker crumbs*
1/3 cup butter, softened
2 T sugar

1 egg
¾ cup light brown sugar
½ cup shredded coconut (recipe calls for sweet, if substituting unsweetened, bump up the sugar)
½ cup chopped almonds
¼ cup flour
1 T. cream or milk
1 tsp. vanilla

pan: 9 inch square
oven: 400˚

Combine the first three ingredients to make the crust—press into the bottom of the pan and bake for 5 minutes.

While the crust is browning, beat the egg until foamy, then beat in the brown sugar.  Stir in the remaining ingredients and spread the mixture over the hot graham cracker layer.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the center is firm to the touch.  One caveat: check the bars at the 15 minute mark.  Because ovens vary so much, the tops of your bars may brown before baking time is up.  If that’s the case, simply cover the pan with foil for the remainder of baking.

* Yes, you can buy them pre-made but they vaguely resemble sawdust.  If you have a food processor, it couldn’t be easier to make your own crumbs.  Second easiest: sealable plastic bag, rolling pin, energetic child.

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DIWALI 2009

Late Friday afternoon, we had to say goodbye to our sweet old girl.

us & our old lady

All things considered, our Lucky Dog lived up to her name.  She didn’t have to suffer through a prolonged illness or regular trips to the vet.  The two people who love her most were right there with her when she died.  LD enjoyed an incredibly high quality of life right up until the very end, something we don’t take for granted.

But I’m still walking around like a zombie in her absence.  Having an old dog, you try to prepare yourself for the inevitable.  But as with any loss, I’ve found you can’t really understand what it will be like until you are there.  Our whole family life revolved around that dog—coming home to let her out, feeding her, changing her diapers, baking her dog bones, rubbing her belly.  She was my first pet, Jill’s faithful hunting partner, and a source of much joy and comfort to both of us.

Needless to say, we came home Friday to a very hollow house.  A very hollow house that had been, up to that point, in the throes of preparation for a very large party the following night.

collage

During each of the four autumns since my father died, I’ve thrown a party to celebrate the Hindu Festival of Lights, Diwali.  My first was a small graduate school gathering in my tiny apartment in Tucson—I kept my mom on culinary consultation via cell phone and somehow managed to coax my tiny stovetop into making large pots of rice pudding (kheer) and my father’s favorite kidney bean stew (rajma).  Jill came into town and poured drinks for everyone.  My fellow writers wrapped the patio in lights, brought candles, decorated my sidewalk with chalk drawings.  We stayed up late that night, sitting on the floor of my apartment, the conversation intimate, warm.

Since then, the logistics have expanded considerably but my intentions haven’t changed.  I seek to honor my father, remember him, commemorate him, make him proud.  As with all of my cooking endeavors, I work to earn my place next to my mother and every other kitchen goddess/hostess/Southern gentlewoman I watched growing up, gracious, willful, relentless.  I like the hard work that comes with feeding forty-five people intricate food you made from scratch.  I revel in the ache and feeling that I have squared myself firmly inside my heritage (albeit with a few first-generation twists).

This year, Jill and I considered, for maybe thirty seconds, calling off the party.  But I don’t think it was ever really an option in either of our minds.  What better time to have a house-full of people we love?  Not to mention, what on EARTH would we have done with all of the food I had already made?

diwali food 2

So, the show went on, as the show must do, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the best one yet.  You know those occasions when you can feel a place hum with love and good will?  It was one of those.  We saw the smiling faces of some of our favorite people, hugged them, fed them good food, and felt grateful for our life, with everything in it.

I’m humbled by two things right now:

  • The beings I love, love, love with all my might and heart and soul and body, will die someday and I can’t control when or how.  When they are gone, it will hurt irreparably.
  • There are some truly incredible beings in my life.

Take, for example, Leslie, a friend from high school who now sells the loveliest stationery on Etsy and transformed my vague idea for an invitation into this striking card:

diwali-invite

My creative librarian colleague Heather, who manufactured the most beautiful cardstock-and-vellum labels for all of the evening’s food:

diwali-heather label

Or our dear friends Courtney and her husband John, who showed up at our house on Friday night with bags of Thai food and these votive-holders, which they crafted out of baby food jars, copper wire, and the loveliest quotes about light.  I think they’re going to become a permanent fixture in our window:

diwali-candles

My college roommate and talented artist Rebecca swathed the tables in sun colors, rose petals, flowers, and even incorporated pictures of our sweet girl at the last minute:

diwali-LD on table

I could go on and on—indomitable photographer Sonya, whose good work you see all over this post, my beloved Jill, who cleaned our house from top to bottom, wrapped the fence in lights, and set out all of the rental tables and chairs, and the kind-hearted Meg of Maker’s Table, who served as our wine consultant, recommending wonderful bottles  in my price range that would pair nicely with the evening’s spicy food.

Speaking of food, we set out quite a spread, if I may say so myself:

For appetizers, we had:

  • Indian fruit salad with mango, pineapple, pomegranate, & star fruit
  • Bhel Puri, a build-your-own Indian street food featuring spicy potatoes atop a bed of crunchy chick-pea flour snacks, onion, cilantro, & one or both of tamarind and coriander chutneys
  • grilled Halloumi cheese atop mini-pitas with mango chutney and onion relish

Dinner:

  • Lamb Koftas (spicy meatballs in a tomato/sour cream gravy)
  • Saag Paneer (greens with homemade cheese)
  • Channa Masala (North Indian-style chickpea stew)
  • Sweet potatoes & green beans with mustard seeds
  • Basmati rice pilaf
  • Achar (cauliflower, carrot, & jalapeño pickle)
  • Raita (homemade yogurt with grated cucumber & salt)
  • Naan (which I purchased and I did NOT make!)

For dessert, I made Indian-style chai and served up little bowls of Suji Halwa, a kind of porridge made with cream-of-wheat, butter, cardamom, & nuts.  Sounds a little strange, but it’s delicious.

I’m afraid I don’t have all of the recipes ready to post for you here—I cooked in enormous quantities and Sonya wasn’t always around to document the process.  I plan to re-run some of these items and measure more closely next time, so if there are any dishes you are particularly interested in having a recipe for, please let me know.

In the meantime, though I don’t have photographic evidence of it, I did concoct a cocktail which we served at the start of the party.  This drink was a HIT—we went through several pitchers of it before moving onto wine & beer with dinner.

A little bit exotic and very easy to make, this guava concoction paired well with the strong Indian food flavors that were being served; I suspect it would also work well with other Asian cuisines or Mexican food.  If you’ve never had guava nectar, try it!  It has a slightly puckery, but also sweet flavor, distinctive and likeable.

I think I’m going to christen them Lucky Dogs.

collage3

LUCKY DOGS (Guava Cocktails)

This recipe makes a pitcher’s worth, but you could easily adjust it for a smaller batch.  Find guava nectar in the International Foods aisle of your grocery store, either in the Mexican or Indian section.  Nectar can also be found in specialty stores of the same type.

4 cups guava nectar*

2 bottles ginger beer* (I love Reed’s)

1 cup vodka (want to try substituting gin—if any of ya’ll do, let me know how it goes!)

juice of 4 limes

Combine all ingredients in a large pitcher, stir with a large spoon.  Would look lovely garnished with a spring of mint and/or wedge of lime.  You know, if you weren’t serving 45 people all at once.

* Chill these ahead of time or serve the cocktail over ice.

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SOUR CREAM PANCAKES

There’s a magnet on my fridge that says “Eat one.  Eat five.  Eat as many darn pancakes as you want.”

pancakes & strawberries

Can I get an “amen?”

My dad used to make me pancakes on weekend mornings; they belong on a very short list of things he could make better than my mama.  He had the patience for pancakes, never rushing them to be turned, never over-browning them the way I do at times in my eagerness to build up a stack.

Until I sat down to write this blog, I hadn’t consciously connected my own pancake-making habits with the tradition my dad started.  There’s often a “bigger” breakfast made in the Blue Jean Kitchen over the weekend, simply because we have the time.  But more often than not, pancakes are what hit the table.

Normally, I just do a “throw the right stuff in a bowl and get it to the right consistency” kind of gig, but when I saw this recipe in Cook Book Club feature of the March 2009 issue of Gourmet, I knew I’d have to put it in the pancake rotation.  And Lorrrrd am I glad that I did!

This recipe is so easy to make (you can use the blender! come on now!) and yields light, airy, tangy pancakes.  Sour cream may seem like a strange ingredient, but trust me on this one: perfect if you have some leftover from garnishing quesadillas or topping baked potatoes.  Last time, I didn’t have quite enough, so I stretched the sour cream a bit by adding plain yogurt, and the pancakes still turned out beautifully.

If you’re craving breakfast but pancakes aren’t your gig, we’ve got a few other things to offer.  Might I suggest having breakfast for dinner tonight?  I know my dad would approve.

sunday morning

BRIDGE CREEK HEAVENLY HOTS
Adapted, slightly, from The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham

The original recipe suggests making silver-dollar sized pancakes, which are fun and adorable but can also be a pain in the ass.  Don’t worry, these taste good at any size.

3 eggs
¼ cup + 2 T cake flour*
2 cups sour cream
3 T sugar
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt

2-3 T butter, melted

Preheat the oven to “warm” so you can store the pancakes while working through several batches.

Simplicity at its finest: whisk the eggs by hand, then add the rest of the ingredients and blend well.

(You can also just dump everything into the blender and press a button.  Very convenient if you’re only half-awake.)

Melt the butter in the microwave or in a tiny saucepan on the stove.  Heat a griddle or frying pan on medium-high heat, then brush with melted butter to grease the surface.

Using a spoon or small measuring cup, spread batter onto the surface, either for one larger pancake or two smaller ones.  When the top of the pancake(s) are full of bubbles, flip and cook them briefly on the other side.

Repeat until the batter is all gone.  Serve with maple syrup, powdered sugar, fresh fruit, you know, they’ll pretty much taste good any way you serve ‘em.

*If you don’t keep cake flour on hand, you can make your own with all-purpose flour & cornstarch.  Place 2 T of cornstarch in the bottom of a one-cup measure.  Fill the rest of the way with all-purpose flour, then sift the mixture several times to aerate.

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FATHER’S DAY BRUNCH: EGGS BENEDICT & BLOODY MARYS

dad

There’s a self-consciousness that comes with grief, the consciousness that the people around you:

a) have never experienced anything like what you’re going through,

b) are utterly at a loss for what to do to comfort/support you,

c) wish you would just “get better” already,

d) are terrified by the thought of death and hate you reminding them that their loved ones will die.

Sometimes I feel like “that girl who talks about her dead father all the time.”

In the filing cabinet of my brain and heart, food and my father are inextricably linked. One of the great ironies of it all is that losing my father, an unabashed epicure, sent me straight into the kitchen, where I got really good at cooking all kinds of things I wish I could make for him now.

For example, Eggs Benedict and an excellently spiced Bloody Mary—robust, made with love, fit for a king. It’s the brunch I’d make for my dad if I could.

Pray tell, what are you feeding your father (or husband, partner, uncle, grandpa, etc) on Sunday? Are you cooking at home or taking him out? Does your family have a Father’s Day culinary tradition? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Wishing all Dads a very happy Father’s Day, with lots of love from BJG.

EGGS BENEDICT (BLUE JEAN GOURMET STYLE)

EB--decorated, close-up

There are lots of variations on theme of EB; this is just how I happen to like mine.  I really don’t think you can go wrong if you stick to the basic premise of  layering toothsome pork product & gooey egg on top of crusty bread and slathering the whole thing in hollandaise.

A word about hollandaise.  It’s really not as fussy as everyone makes it out to be–at least, it has not been a culinary-pain-in-the-butt for me.  I’ve heard tell that you can make hollandaise in a blender, and if you have done so with success and think it’s way easier than my method, please do share.  I’ve made mine several times the old-fashioned way with great success, so if you’ve been afraid to try the stuff, I urge you to give it a whirl.

WHAT YOU’LL NEED:

spinach (either a package of frozen, chopped or a big bunch of fresh)

English muffins (traditional) or another bread product

Canadian bacon (substitute thick-cut ham or many slices of thin-cut ham)

poached eggs*

eggs, butter, water, fresh lemon juice (for the hollandaise)

salt & pepper, hot sauce (optional)

TO MAKE HOLLANDAISE:

2 egg yolks

juice from 1/2 a lemon

6 T butter, cut into cubes

salt & pepper

Combine the egg yolks with lemon juice in a small saucepan.  Whisk to combine over low heat; the yolks should thicken quickly.  Toss in the butter cubes and continue whisking until the butter has melted.

hollandaise step 2

hollandaise step 3

hollandaise fin

The mixture will become a bit lighter in color, which is a good indication that you’ve got things well-emulsified.  Add salt & pepper to taste.

TO ASSEMBLE:

The trickiest part about making this breakfast is the timing.  You basically want to save the hollandaise for last, because it does best when served very soon after it’s made–it’s a little bit diva like that (na-na-na-a-diva-is-a-female-version…okay, yeah I’m going to have that song in my head now.)

My plan of action is usually this:

1) cook spinach, season with salt & pepper, set aside

2) brown Canadian bacon in a skillet, keep warm in a low oven

3) toast English muffins, add to the low oven

4) poach eggs* & turn out into a paper-towel-lined platter in, you guessed it!, a low oven

5) make hollandaise

6) stack ’em: English muffin half on bottom, top with Canadian bacon, then spinach, then a poached egg.  repeat.  pour on the Hollandaise with a generous hand!

* The internet is full of wisdom for how best to poach one’s eggs; I’ve done them the old-fashioned way, in a pot of vinegar-spiked water and I’ve done them the lazy way, in an egg poacher.  However you get your eggs poached is fine by me!

BEST BLOODY MARY MIX

bloody mary

ingredients:

1 large bottle spicy-hot V8

Juice of 2 limes

2 T. white vinegar

2 T. prepared horseradish

2 T. Worcestershire sauce

1 T. garlic powder

1 tsp. celery salt

1 tsp. Tabasco sauce

A generous glug of any of the following
olive juice, pickle juice, or juice from pickled jalapeños

Plenty of freshly-ground pepper

garnish: celery, spicy green olives, limes, celery salt

Combine all ingredients and store in a pitcher in the refrigerator. When you’re ready for drinks, first “salt” the rim of your glasses.  Rub the lip of each glass with a lime wedge; then, turn the glass upside down and onto a plate-full of celery salt.  Twist the glass to form a rim.

To mix a drink, combine 3 parts mix to 1 part vodka or gin over ice.  Garnish with a tall stalk of celery and a toothpick speared with an olive & lime wedge.

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QUICK! QUICK! FATHER’S DAY GIFT IDEAS…

Father’s Day is one week from today, people!  So, just in case you haven’t gotten on the ball yet, here’s a no-frills smattering of gift ideas:planetearth

If you’ve got the funds, spring for a Kindle. Who doesn’t love a fancy gadget? Great for traveling Dads/husbands/etc.

The BBC’s Planet Earth series is available on DVD, visually stunning, and great for families to watch together.

homegame200 I heard this fantastic interview on NPR a few weeks ago with Michael Lewis, the author of Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood.  He happens to be married to Tabitha Soren (remember her from MTV?) and wrote a no-holds-barred account of his journey from reluctant to enthusiastic dad.  Based on the interview, the book promises to be a hilarious read.

record player

For the music aficionado, I love this combo record/CD/radio player.  Excellent retro styling.

Build-your-own shaving kit here; browse through clever t-shirts for hipster dads here.

You knew I was going to offer some foodie ideas, right?

glasses I am a big fan of these “Ottimista/Pessimista” glasses in either beer or wine size.  If Dad’s really into beer, give him a home brewing kit; is he more into wine?  There’s a starter kit to DIY that, too.  Should you have a grilling master on your hands, monogrammed grill tools may be the way to go, and I don’t think one can go wrong with a set of beautiful steak knives.

If you really want to win points for originality, allow me to point you in the direction of the Jerky-of-the-Month Club.  A new flavor, every month for six months.  The internet is a wonderful thing, no?

Last but certainly not least, consider giving a Kiva credit, not just for Father’s Day but for any gifting occasion.  The recepient uses the credit you gave to loan out various amounts to entrepreneurs all over the world.  Each invidual’s picture and story are featured on the website, and Kiva notifies you when the money has been paid back so you can loan it out again and again.  An extremely empowering thing for individuals on both sides of the bargain.

sangria with pitcher (big)Of course, you may be planning to cook for your Dad on Sunday; don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.  Friday we’ll feature an excellent brunch menu of Eggs Benedict & The Best Bloody Marys.  In the meantime, the Summer Classics Series will continue on Tuesday with a big pitcher of Sangria.  Ole!

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