• For salad’s sake

    Two nights in a row now, Mr. Handsome and I have been playing tag team. This means that after the supper rush and clean up, I tuck my computer under my arm and hightail it upstairs. First I get shower (make it cold, please) and then I snuggle up in my bed, a mound of pillows behind my back, and get all set to write—except that I procrastinate first. It’s a bad habit. It’s gotten so that I have to procrastinate before I write, kind of like how athletes have to spit on their hands, cross themselves, and tug at their shirt collars before doing whatever it is they do. I don’t spit, cross, or tug—I click and read. But after ten frittering minutes, I’m done, ready to get busy.

    Aaaand here I am. Good evening!

    I know it’s kind of bad manners to complain about the weather, but because it’s on the forefront of my mind, I’m going to anyway. Yesterday when I went running, I was in a cloud, and not no happiness cloud, neither. It was the real deal cloud—heavy, dark, thick, soggy. The roadside grass was draped with moisture-laden, silvery spider webs like some giantess had scattered a hundred thousand tissues, and the trees plink-plunked water down on my sweaty head. It brought to mind that desert in Peru and how the fog rolls in from the sea and moisture condenses on the cactus and spider webs and the animals go around licking up the droplets and acting like they hit payday. But here in Virginia we don’t lick leaves. Maybe in a couple hundred centuries we’ll evolve into tree-lickers, but not just yet.

    Then this afternoon a thunderstorm rumbled to the south-west of us and hovered just over the ridge for a whole, freakin’ two hours. We got wind, we got cool air, we got rain-smell up our parched nostrils, but nothing happened, except that my laundry dried.

    In a valiant (but vain) attempt to ignore the rain-laden clouds and rumbling thunder, I made kale chips.

    In case you didn’t know, they are all the rage. To make them, just tear some washed, and then dried, kale leaves into pieces, toss them with canola oil, sprinkle with salt, and bake in a 350 oven for about ten minutes. The resulting “chips” were light, crispy, oily, salty, and bitter. The kids spit them out. Mr. Handsome didn’t spit, but he quit after one and doggedly refused to try a second. I ate a bunch, just to make certain I for-sure didn’t like them, but then I gave up pretending to be kale-chip cool and turned the remaining bits over to the chickens.

    And then I turned my attention to a salad. A kick-butt salad, if I do say so myself.

    In fact, I want to serve this salad at my wedding.

    Except I’m already married and have zero plans to change the status quo, so in that case, I’ll have to serve the salad at Miss Beccaboo’s or Sweetsie’s wedding.

    That’s right, my girls are just nine and six respectively, and I’m already marrying them off for the sake of some salad. It’s that good.

    I’ll admit the ingredient list didn’t make me super confident, mostly because I didn’t know what Asian sweet chili sauce was. The ancient jar of sweet chili sauce that was lounging in my refrigerator door was totally devoid of any Asian characteristics whatsoever, but I decided to give it a go anyhow. A bunch of minced ginger, several tablespoons of rice vinegar, a shake of salt and grind of pepper, and the dressing was done. My case of the queasy qualms was not squelched.

    But then, then I peeled, sliced, and drizzled and the resulting assemblage was so lovely that I got goosebumps just looking at it. And each jazzy fork full? Oh my. It was the Hallelujah Chorus and La Macarena combined! (That’s not sacrilegious, is it?) Spicy-sweet, meaty, fruity, smooth, crunchy…delicious in the most fashionable way possible.

    I’m gushing, aren’t I. Sorry.

    I’ll just say this yet: after eating my salad, I hopped up to make a fresh plate for the camera, which Mr. Handsome and I then split in half, wolfed down, and that was that.

    The floodgates are now officially closed. Goodnight.

    Shrimp, Mango, and Avocado Salad
    Adapted (mostly because I don’t want to type out the rest of the title which would be “with Sweet Chili-Ginger Vinaigrette” even though that probably makes the salad sound more unctuous, but really, leaving out part of the title doesn’t make it any less tasty, just so you know) from the August 2010 issue of Bon Appetit

    I only used about half of the dressing, so either save the leftovers for another salad, or double the other ingredients, or just chuck it.

    My shrimp were frozen, unpeeled, and raw. To bring them up to speed, I half-thawed them under some cold water, heated a pot of water to boiling, tossed in the unpeeled shrimp for three minutes, scooped them into some ice water, peeled them, and that was it.

    ½ cup Asian sweet chili sauce (perhaps something like this?)
    2-3 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
    1 ample tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
    pinch of salt
    grind of black pepper
    8 ounces cooked, peeled shrimp (the equivalent of 12 large shrimpies)
    5 ounces of mixed greens
    1 juicy mango, peeled and sliced
    1 avocado, peeled, pitted, and sliced

    Whisk together the first five ingredients. Toss three tablespoons of the dressing with the shrimp and set aside.

    Makes either 4 side servings or 2 main course servings. To assemble, set out however many plates you’re using and divide the ingredients between them—first the greens, then the avocado and mango slices, then the saucy shrimp. Lightly drizzle some of the remaining dressing over the salads (a little goes a long way, so exercise restraint).

    This same time, years previous: Experimenting (and suffering for it) and Summertime Pizza

  • Pilaf for the peeved

    I’m soooo ready for summer to be over already. I want to start fresh with a brand-spanking-new summer, now.

    We had that drought and it was so bad that Virginia declared a state of emergency for our county. So I’m not making it up when I say things were bad. They were.

    And then it rained. It rained three nice, heavy downpours, to be exact (more or less). Things started greening up. We were lighthearted and carefree. The kids even got to use the sprinkler since we didn’t have to be so scrooge-y with our well water.

    And then it stopped raining and began browning down, big time. I’m peeved with this turn of events. Seriously peeved.

    We aren’t getting hardly anything from our garden. Think 28 tomato plants are a lot? Yes? Well, I did, too. But we’re getting such a piddly-little amount that I’ve had to outline a plan of action: salsa first, canned tomatoes second, and pizza sauce third. I doubt I’ll get to the third.

    The corn is thigh-high and bearing skinny little sticks of nothing.

    Carrots? Bitter.

    Cukes? Bitter, and then dead.

    Zucchinis? Small, wormy, wilted, dead.

    Chard? Eaten. (By bugs.)

    Beets? Small, puny, eaten. (By me. In one sitting.)

    Green beans? Twenty-six quarts from a whole stinkin’ pound of seed.

    Red Raspberries? Dry, small, bug-infested, rotten.

    I was thinking of doing a fall crop of green beans as that’s our major winter vegetable, but seeing as it’s so dry, it’d be pointless.

    I’m trying to stay positive. This winter I have the marvelous opportunity to use up everything in my freezers and on my canning shelves! There’s still some corn, tomatoes, pickles, red beets, and a few jars of green beans, and once I use it all up, I’ll have an excuse to buy green veggies in winter!

    Yay me.

    My disgust, irritation, and frustration—or, my irrifrustugation—is really not that big of a deal, all things considered. We have an abundance of food despite the few shortages, plus lots of money to buy whatever we want to eat. In fact, just the other day I was wailing happily about all the good food there is to eat and too little time to do it in. I get in a tizzy over the silliest things.

    That very evening I had a meeting at church. It was the same night that our church’s fellowship hall and kitchen get transformed into a food pantry. When I walked in the door, the hall was lined with people waiting their turn to get their brown bags of day-old bread, dried beans, and tins of fruit. The line stretched the whole way to the end of the hall and up the steps. As I stepped over and around people to climb the stairs to our meeting room, I was struck by the irony of my too-much-food complaint—whining about my good fortune! the nerve!—and the realization that, on the turn of a dime, it could be me waiting in some airless church hallway for some free food. Not that this one dry summer is That Dime, of course, but, when it comes right down to it, there really isn’t much dividing me from them.

    There’s no great lesson here. I’m still peeved at the cloudless sky, still overwhelmed by all my fun cooking projects, still ready for a summer redo. But the fresh perspective was momentarily profound. End of story.

    Now, for a recipe. I have so many up my sleeve. The hard part is deciding which to write about, but seeing as I’m an immediate person, I’ll go with what we had for dinner tonight.


    It’s both a winter dish (uses the oven, rice and legumes) and a summer dish (fresh mint, cilantro, green chili). But considering that it’s Indian (kick alert!) and India is a hot country, I’d say it fits into this hot, dry summer just about perfect.


    Indian Pilaf of Rice and Split Peas

    Adapted from A Taste of India by Madhur Jaffrey

    This dish is both light and filling, slightly spicy from the chili, nutty from the split peas, and sweet from the caramelized onions. I can’t get enough of it and am already looking forward to feasting on the leftovers.

    Although I found it fairly mild, my kids fussed about the heat. (It wasn’t too hot, technically speaking, so I was able to enforce the eat-it-or-no-dessert rule.) Even so, if making this with hopes of pleasing the little ones, I suggest omitting the green chili and using black pepper in place of the cayenne.

    The onion was my favorite part; I’ll double it the next time around.

    ½ cup yellow split peas
    2 cups Basmati rice
    ½ teaspoon turmeric, divided
    1/4 cup canola oil
    1 large onion, peeled, halved, and sliced into thin half rings
    2 teaspoons minced, fresh ginger
    1 clove garlic, minced
    5 tablespoons plain yogurt, divided
    1 tablespoon and ½ teaspoon salt, divided
    1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
    2 tablespoons butter, melted
    2 tablespoons lemon juice
    2 tablespoons milk
    1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
    1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
    1 green chili (I used a jalapeno), minced
    ½ teaspoon garam masala

    The Soaking Part:
    Pick over the split peas and then wash them in several changes of water. Let them soak in enough water to cover them by 3 inches for 1 ½ hours.

    Wash the rice several times till the water runs clear. Let it soak in enough water to cover it by an inch for 30 minutes. Drain.

    The Pre-cooking Part:
    Put the split peas in their soaking water in a saucepan, add 1/4 teaspoon turmeric and simmer on the stove, leaving the lid slightly ajar, for about 30 minutes, or until the peas are tender but not mushy. Drain.

    Bring 12 cups of water to boil in a large kettle. Add 1 tablespoon salt. Add the drained rice and boil for 3-5 minutes, or until the rice is 3/4 of the way cooked (but still has a slim, hard, inner core). Drain.

    The Actual Cooking Part:
    Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Have a lid nearby in case of splatters (par for the course with Indian food, I’m learning—can’t really expect anything different when you add yogurt to hot oil). Add the onions and stir gently till they are dark brown and crispy. Scoop the onions out of the oil and set aside.

    Reduce the heat to medium and add the ginger and garlic. Stir briefly. When they are light brown, add 1 tablespoon of yogurt and 1/4 teaspoon turmeric and stir. The liquid will evaporate and the yogurt will curdle a bit (no worries). Add the remaining 4 tablespoons of yogurt, a spoonful at a time, stirring in between additions. Add the drained split peas, the salt, and the cayenne pepper. Cook for one minute. Remove from the heat.

    The Assembling Part:
    Put half of the rice in the bottom of a 9 x 13 pan. Layer on the split pea mixture. Top with the remaining rice. Drizzle the butter, lemon juice, and milk over the pilaf. Sprinkle with the mint and cilantro and garam masala. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

    The Eating Part:
    All by its lonesome or with a cucumber-tomato-onion salad or with green peas or with a lettuce salad or with a meat or with a yogurt chutney or, or, or—the options are endless and delicious.

    Yield: 6 servings

    This same time, years previous: Chocolate Beet Cake

  • Indian kick continued

    I cooked all day Saturday in preparation for the Birthday Brothers’ Indian feast. Sunday afternoon I assembled and reheated, as well as made the rice, a chicken dish, and the pooris. It was quite a juggling act to find enough serving bowls and stove space, but finally the table was spread and we dug in. (Of course I forgot to take a picture of the groaning table in all its spicy glory. You’ll have to use your imagination.)

    This is what we ate:

    *shrimp in coconut milk
    *pureed vegetables
    *yogurt chutney
    *chicken in a green sauce
    *rice with spinach and tomatoes
    *stuffed okra
    *spicy potatoes
    *hard-boiled eggs in a tomato sauce
    *mango lassi

    The okra was no good (could be the okra was too old/tough/big), the pureed veggies were blah, and the chicken in a green sauce was a dud, but the rest of the dishes passed muster quite nicely. My two favorites were the eggs in a tomato sauce and the spicy potatoes, both which I made for book club last week.

    Re the book club: apparently I wasn’t the only one who got hungry reading Interpreter of Maladies. Normally we just drink tea and discuss, but last week we sat down to a table of chapatis and naan, spicy potatoes, and rice with eggs in tomato sauce (my other contribution). The meal over, we lingered, sipping water and talking about whether or not Shoba left Shukumar. Or at least everyone else talked about it. I asked for the potatoes to be passed and then hugged the bowl to my chest while I quietly and methodically finished off what was left.

    When I get on a kick, it’s for real. Our newest netflix arrived a couple days ago—The Namesake, an Indian movie. When I told Mr. Handsome what it was, he groaned and rolled his eyes. He rolls his eyes at me a lot these days, but then he smiles, too, so it’s okay.

    We interrupt our regular programming to bring you a Random Moment,
    courtesy of Miss Beccaboo

    Today on the way home from swimming lessons, the following conversation ensued between her and me.

    Her: Can I make my own peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch? You put in too much peanut butter.

    Me (vaguely, mind elsewhere): We’ll see…

    Her: Mom. I need to learn how to cook for if you die or get shot or something. Then I can know how to make myself something to eat while I try to stay calm and look for the phone.

    We didn’t have PB&J for lunch, but if we had, I would’ve let her make her own.

    Random Moment Completed

    Back to the potatoes.

    These chunky potatoes are packed with flavor, tender, and slightly creamy around the edges. And spicy, of course. The kids don’t like them—no surprise there—but I don’t mind. More for me!

    Spicy Indian Potatoes
    Adapted from A Taste of India by Madhur Jaffrey

    For last night’s dinner, I made a double batch and had only a few leftovers. I’m giving you the single recipe, but if you’re cooking for a spice-n-spud loving crowd, you’ll want to double it for sure.

    Before turning on the stove, measure all the spices into little cups and bowls and line them up according to when they’ll get added. Once this prep work is done (and the potatoes have been cooked, peeled, and broken into bits), it only takes about five minutes to assemble the dish. The spicy potatoes can also be made ahead, refrigerated, and reheated in the microwave.

    1 ½ pounds (about five) waxy potatoes
    3/4-inch cube of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
    5 tablespoons canola oil
    1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
    ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
    1 fresh, hot green chili, minced (I used serranos)
    1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
    1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
    1/4-½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
    ½ cup water
    1 ½ teaspoons lemon juice
    1 ½ teaspoons salt
    3/4 teaspoon garam masala

    Wash the potatoes, put them in a kettle, and cover with water. Bring them to a boil and simmer till fork-tender. Drain, cool a little, and then peel. Using your fingers, break the potatoes apart into 1-inch pieces. There will be a bunch of small, crumbled bits, too, but as Jaffrey says, “that is as it should be.”

    Put the oil in a heavy-bottomed kettle and heat it over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds. When they begin to pop, add the cumin seeds. Add the ginger and green chili. Stir for a few seconds until the ginger is lightly browned. Add the coriander, turmeric and cayenne pepper. Stir once and add the broken potatoes. Stir and fry for 1 minute. Add the water, lower the heat and stir gently for ½ minute. Add the lemon juice, salt, and garam masala. Stir gently for another minute. Serve hot.

    Yield: 4 servings

    About one year ago: Little bits of smile in a cup of sad
    About two years ago: Blackberry Cobbler

  • Some sweet stuff

    So I came upstairs to write, but I’m whupped. The heat, the pool, the kitchen, the peaches—they have all conspired against me. My brain is shot. My feet are shot (and swollen). My drive is shot. I thought it was supposed to be cooler tomorrow, but I just clicked on the weather and the heat index is to be 105. I wanna cry.

    Really, though, it wasn’t all that bad today. There was a giant breeze, and I had fun playing in the kitchen. Tomorrow I’m cooking a birthday dinner for my brothers et al. It’s an Indian meal. There are three entrees, plus sides. Plus bread.

    Indian bread stumps me. The naan turned out so-so—passable, but nothing like the naan from a tandoor oven. The rotis have me in a snit. I’ve made them four times. The last round was the best yet, but even so, I only got a half puff. Look at how Manjula does it, but don’t you dare believe it’s as easy as she makes it out to be. She’s lying through her teeth. (I’ve watched several of her videos and I’m in love with her. Her accent makes me smile all the way down to my toasty, sticky, swollen, tired toes.)

    The pooris, however, turned out perfectly. Just look at them!

    This means we will be having pooris and, perhaps, naan.

    But if it’s as hot as they say it’ll be, I don’t know if I can bear to crank my oven up to 500 degrees. Then again, I’ll do most anything for food.

    We got the four bushels of peaches done in a little over 24 hours. I have no idea how people do factory line work—the standing, the repetitive motions, for hours on end. No matter how I arranged myself—in a chair, on a stool, standing at the sink—I was in paaaaain. My back cramped up, my feet burned, my thumb stung, and my tongue tasted like metal. The metallic ailment is a new one. Very odd.

    In any case, we peeled and sliced, sliced and peeled, and peeled and sliced some more. Peach pits skittered across the floor, juice got dribbled everywhere, but only one (!) of the 57 jars didn’t seal. To celebrate a fresh peach-free house, I soaked in a cold bath, read a magazine, and drank a spiked limeade while Mr. Handsome scrubbed the entire kitchen floor with a brillo pad.

    This limeade is responsible for keeping me hydrated and energized (all things considered) throughout the peach marathon. It’s some sweet stuff—just a little of the concentrate stirred into a tall glass of ice and water is all that’s needed to make you feel indulgent. To put it over the top, replace the water with seltzer and add a splash of tequila.

    Limeade Concentrate
    Adapted from Margo of Thrift At Home

    Note: The boiled, sugared lime zest is supposed to be junk, but I ate a pinch and found it delectable. Next time I’m saving it. I’m thinking it might be good stirred into some melted dark chocolate…

    2 cups sugar
    1 cup water
    pinch of salt
    6 limes (3 zested, all 6 juiced)

    Combine the zest, sugar, salt, and water in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Strain. Stir in the lime juice. Chill.

    To serve, measure 1 or 2 tablespoons of syrup into a tall glass before filling with cold water and ice. For an adult version, use seltzer water and add 1 to 2 tablespoons of tequila.

    Yield: many glasses of pleasure

    About one year ago: Brown Sugar Granola
    About two years ago: Dutch Puff

  • A free-wheeling education

    Did any of you hear the NPR story yesterday about the Harvard graduate who was homeschooled by her trucker mom?

    The kids and I were driving home from picking up our four (heaven help me!) bushels of peaches from the orchard when I flipped from our go-to country station to NPR. I do this occasionally, just to see what hot topics are being discussed, and the kids hate it. Over their energetic groans I heard the announcer say something about homeschooling, trucking, and Harvard, so I quickly shushed them: It’s about a girl who was homeschooled, guys. Listen!

    Kerry Anderson, a new Harvard graduate, was being interviewed by Michele Norris. Anderson, who began college at a community school, was recruited by Harvard, something highly unusual for an Ivy League school. Norris questioned Anderson about her unusual pre-college education and how she made the switch from studying while traveling across the country to studying while sitting in a classroom. And, of course, there was the inevitable question:

    NORRIS: So when did you actually hold classes? How did you actually complete your schooling while you were traveling from one state to the other?

    Ms. ANDERSON: A lot of our schooling actually was integrated into what she was doing. When we know where we were going, Texas to California, for instance, we had to map out the mileage. We had to map out when we had to fuel, how fast we were going to be going, where we needed to stop, rest areas, all of that kind of thing, what our fuel mileage was going to be.

    That’s how she got us going on a lot of it. And then there was a program that we mailed things in. So we did it at our leisure, basically.

    Don’t you just love that? All the attention given to the details of learning to live and travel, with a casual, oh-yeah-I-almost-forgot nod to traditional schooling. So refreshing.

  • Picklehead

    When I mentioned to my friend that I’m experimenting with my own homemade hair cleanser and conditioner, she sucked in her cheeks and rolled her eyes before regaining her composure and saying, a hint of resignation in her voice, “So tell me about it.”

    I got the idea from Sarah who wrote about going commercial-hair-product free. While I’m not opposed to commercial hair products, if my hair does better on a simple homemade formula, well then, what was I doing spending money and filling up the landfills?

    So. Across town to the health food store I went to fetch me a little apothecary jar of essential oil of lavender (eight bucks—yikes). And then I promptly set about concocting my potions.

    The cleanser is just baking soda in water, and the conditioner is water, vinegar, and essential oil. It couldn’t be simpler, really. My hair gets clean, and, despite the blog post title, the vinegar rinse makes my hair smell only mildly vinegary, and that’s only while my hair is still wet. Once it dries, there is no scent whatsoever.

    I’m still not convinced that this method is better then regular shampoo. My hair feels different, heavier and a little less sleek. And contrary to what Sarah found, my hair doesn’t seem to hold a style as well, or at least it loses it faster. I normally go two days without a shampoo, but now my hair feels like it gets dirtier sooner so I only go about a day and a half between washings.

    Despite the hitches, I’m not ready to give up. Considering all the different types of hair, it wouldn’t be fair to expect the formula to be a one-size-fits-all. I’m still tweaking, using more conditioner, or less, rubbing a little coconut oil into my still-damp hair before styling, making a new cleanser with fewer drops of essential oil. My goal is to make it till my next hair appointment when I’ll ask my hair dresser if he notices any changes with my hair. If he says yes, that it’s much healthier, lush, and simply gorgeous, then I just may continue.

    And I may continue anyway. While I miss the feel of a good lather, the smell and ease of shampoo, it’s rather thrilling to be doing something so totally different. Not to mention it’s so dang cheap.

    So, what are you waiting for? Hop on the bandwagon! Become a fellow picklehead!

    Hair Cleanser

    ½ cup baking soda
    1 ½ cups water

    Mix together and bottle. The baking soda will settle to the bottom, so it must be well-shaken before using. (I experimented by using boiling water instead of cold in hopes that it would dissolve better. It didn’t.)

    To use: Right before hopping into the shower, while your hair is still dry, squirt the mixture on your hairline and part, massaging it into your scalp. The goal is to clean your scalp, not your hair, so squirt it here and there all over your head (about 2 or 3 tablespoons, total), rubbing vigorously with your fingertips. (I look like a wild woman when I’m done.) Wait a minute before rinsing thoroughly.

    Hair Conditioner

    ½ cup white or apple cider vinegar
    2 cups water
    5-10 drops essential oil (lavender, vanilla, peppermint, etc)

    Mix together and bottle.

    To use: Shake well and then squirt a couple tablespoons over your hair, from the nape of the neck down to the ends of your hair. Unless you have extra-dry hair, do not apply to the scalp. Leave the conditioner in your hair for about a minute before rinsing thoroughly.

    About one year ago: Braised Cabbage
    About two years ago: Salvation’s Chocolate Chip Cookies (and my falling out with Molly Wizenberg)

  • Doing something right

    The best part of cooking on a Sunday afternoon is not this:

    The best part is this:

    While everyone snoozed, I made blueberry cheesecake ice cream, fresh tomatillo salsa, and Indian red sauce. I researched and bookmarked countless other recipes. I called an Indian restaurant to see about ordering na’an. I ordered a cookbook. All this despite feeling kind of draggy. (I know I’m draggy when I drink a big coffee and then fall asleep on the couch. But I went to bed early last night, so I don’t know what’s up with that. Maybe it’s the heat? In any case, I’m doing my best to pretend I’m not tired.)

    And then Mr. Handsome woke up, washed the mountain of dirty dishes, and took the kids to the pool. I do believe I could cook all day if I had someone to clean up after me.

    So why all the Indian food, you wonder? Well, this past month I read Interpreter of Maladies for book club. There was Indian food all over the place in that book and so of course I got real hungry. Behaving in my typically logical (that’s a joke) fashion, I checked an Indian cookbook out of the library, ordered spices, and got busy.

    The library book is superb (thus the reason I ordered it today, obviously). Each recipe I’ve made so far is delicious. The recipes look complicated, and there’s a lot of detail, but it’s really not all that bad once you get started. In fact, with a little prep work in the morning, I can pull together the evening meal in an hour.

    Indian food involves spices, spices, and more spices. Whole spices get toasted and then ground, releasing an incredible fragrance that makes my kitchen smell like my childhood Indian friend’s house—this is how I know I’m doing something right.

    And I feel good eating the food. It’s light, nutritious, filling, spicy, and flavorful. Forget boring old macaroni and cheese and give me a bowl of fish in dark sauce or some rice with spinach and tomatoes any day. Or maybe some halves of boiled eggs floating sunnily in that Indian red sauce? Yes, please!

    My goal is to cook enough recipes so that I get a feel for the rhythm of Indian cooking. I’d like to develop a big-enough repertoire so that I’m able to pull off a well-rounded company dinner fairly easily. I made this shrimp in coconut milk, the first recipe I tried from the book, and one taste—nay, just the smell—told me I was well on my way to meeting my goal.

    The kids found the sauce to be too hot, but the older two gobbled up the (sauce-drenched) shrimp which gave me hope that they will all, with enough opportunity, eventually learn to appreciate the exotic flavors.

    Shrimp with Coconut Milk
    Only slightly adapted from A Taste of India by Madhur Jaffrey

    If your local store doesn’t carry black mustard seeds or dried curry leaves (not related to curry powder), you can order them here.

    The original recipe called for 3/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, but I cut back to ½ teaspoon. The resulting sauce made my mouth tingle, and I had to eat slower (not a bad thing), but I didn’t cry—perfect.

    I reduce the shrimp to 1 pound and ended up with a bunch of shrimp-less sauce, delicious over rice, nonetheless. However, the full 1 ½ pounds would’ve been perfect.

    Hint: before you start cooking, measure your spices and chop your veggies. Line everything up on the counter in the order that it gets added to the pot. This sounds anal, but it makes the cooking process smooth as silk.

    1 ½ pounds shrimp, unpeeled, deveined, uncooked
    2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
    1/4 teaspoon whole fenugreek seeds
    1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
    10 dried curry leaves
    2 teaspoons lemon juice
    5 tablespoons vegetable oil
    1 teaspoon whole black mustard seeds
    1 medium onion, sliced into thin, half rings
    5 cloves garlic, minced
    1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
    1 3/4 cups water
    2 tablespoons paprika
    ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
    ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
    1 teaspoon salt
    2 fresh, hot green chilies (I used serranos)
    14-ounce can (1 3/4 cups) coconut milk

    Peel and rinse the shrimp. Pat dry, cover, and keep chilled in the refrigerator.

    Heat a small, cast-iron skillet, and when hot, put in the coriander seeds, the fenugreek seeds, and the peppercorns. Stir them about for 1 minutes until lightly roasted. Remove from heat and put them into the container of a spice (or coffee) grinder. Add the dried curry leaves. Grind as fine as possible.

    Heat the oil in a large, heavy kettle. When hot, put in the mustard seeds. As soon as they begin to pop (watch out!), add the onion and garlic and fry till lightly browned. Add the ginger and cook for another couple seconds.

    Add the water, paprika, cayenne pepper, turmeric, salt, whole chilies, the ground spice mixture, and the lemon juice. Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer briskly for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat. (At this point, the sauce can be jarred and refrigerated till shortly before serving, making it a perfect dish for a company meal.)

    Five minutes before you want to eat, heat the sauce in a heavy kettle. Once it bubbles, add the shrimp. Stir them around till they turn opaque. Stir in the coconut milk. When the sauce is heated through and shows signs of just beginning to bubble, turn off the heat.

    Serve over rice.

    Yield: 6 servings.

    About one year ago: The sex talk
    About two years ago: Alfredo Sauce

  • With a twist

    Written Friday afternoon…

    Six kids are in rest time, one in each room of the house (not counting bathrooms). Now you know how many rooms we have. It makes this house sound right small, but it’s not. The main room is actually three rooms that we knocked the walls out of when we moved in. Or before we moved in, rather. Two of us are sharing that room—the three-year-old baby is zonked out on the brown sofa; I’m chillin’ (or trying to—it’s HOT again) on the green.

    Yesterday when I told Miss Beccaboo to gather up whatever she needed for rest time, she said, “I don’t need anything. I have my imagination.”

    This is the type of thing she comes up with when it’s just her and her head in a room for an hour.

    A homemade skirt, just masking tape and scrap paper.

    It even has a kick-pleat.

    I’m thinkin’ of taking the kids to the pool this afternoon. The two extras will be gone by then and I want to wear my kids out real good so they go to bed early tonight and Mr. Handsome and I can stay up and watch a movie. I love movie nights, especially when they involve my favorite popcorn.

    I’ve been getting up before six most mornings to go for a rulk; I run for the first mile and a half and then walk for a mile. This morning when the sun came up over the ridge, it cast rays just like in the picture books. I walked backwards so I could stare at it. But then I turned around and walked normal. My walk time is my think time and I have to force myself to concentrate on whatever it is I’m puzzling. I’ve been working through some ideas for an article I’d like to write, and I’m convinced that my best ideas come to me after I’ve so rudely jolted my brain awake with the pavement pounding.

    We’ve had a pretty slow week. The car was in the shop for a couple days, the weather was cool, not much was happening. When the days are long, this is the type of entertainment that Yo-Yo creates for himself.

    We forbid him from climbing stairs, but he’s learned to navigate hills and gravel. Whenever I see him loping over the premises, the BFG comes to mind.

    As for me, my week has been filled with the same old ho-hum stuff. When our days fall into a lull like this—no evening meetings, no garden rush, no trips to town, no deadlines—I start to wonder how much of an anomaly I am. Just living, one day at a time, day after day after day. It’s probably not all that common nowadays, and, me being an extrovert and all, I often rebel against monotony, but for some reason, it’s been nice this time around.

    There has been excitement in my kitchen, so maybe that’s why. Hot, spicy, authentic Indian food. Over-the-top ice cream. Coconut cake. Grilled salt-and-vinegar potatoes. Bacon-wrapped breadsticks.

    Somehow the idea of bacon-wrapped breadsticks niggled its way into my mind. I found myself pondering them when I woke up in the morning and when I lay down at night. They appeared before me in the shower and they danced in front of me while I ran down the dirt road. So I finally sat down at the computer and typed in “bacon-wrapped breadsticks” and whaddaya know, they were all over the place out there! I should’ve felt abject and deflated by such overwhelming proof of my lack of originality, but I didn’t. I’ve read Ecclesiastes, so I take this sort of thing in stride.

    I had some leftover five-minute bread dough in the fridge, so I rolled it out, sprinkled it with a little Parmensan, cut the dough into strips, paired up each strip of dough with a piece of bacon and then gave them a hearty twist to seal the union. The strips got baked in a hot oven for fifteen minutes, and as soon as I pulled them from the oven, I rolled them in more Parmesan.

    The kids went crazy.

    Bacon-Wrapped Breadsticks

    ½ recipe of five-minute bread dough
    1 pound bacon
    1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

    On a floured surface, roll the dough into a rectangle the same width as your bacon pieces. (If you’re making appetizers, you can cut the bacon in half, or even thirds). Sprinkle the dough with a quarter cup of the Parmesan cheese. Cut the dough into as many strips as you have bacon. Match them up, bacon atop dough, grab both ends and twist in opposite directions.

    Lay the sticks on a sided baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees for 10-15 minutes, depending on the size of your breadsticks, until the bacon is brown and crispy. If the bottoms are getting too brown, you can tip them over on their sides.

    Remove the sticks from the oven and roll in the remaining cheese, using your fingers to press cheese to bread and bacon, if necessary. Serve warm or at room temperature.

    We ate them all almost immediately, only saving one for Mr. Handsome to taste when he got home from work, so I have no idea how they hold up. I have a hunch they would freeze beautifully, and after a quick run through a hot oven, they’d be good as new.

    About one year ago: Zucchini Parmesan Frittata
    About two years ago: Coconut Oil-Popped Popcorn, Chit-Chat

  • From the garden

    Our garden is pathetic. Usually I’m harvesting all sorts of things and feeling semi-overwhelmed come mid-July, but this year I’m practically twiddling my thumbs. The basil plants are anorexic. The chard got eaten by something evil and microscopic. The beans are so measly I get mad just thinking about them.

    Even so, I managed to cook a garden meal last weekend. One zucchini, one yellow squash, a handful of cherry tomatoes, and three store-bought Romas. Working together, they pulled off dinner quite nicely.

    This is a roasted meal, one that calls for a hot oven, something I generally avoid over the July dinner hour, but we’ve had some blessedly cool evenings after those hellishly hot days last week—I even made a hot soup for supper one evening. The roasting method is quite delightful: the veggies slump in on their juicy selves, the edges caramelize, the cheesy, bready top creates crunch, and the olive oil binds it all together.

    My parents, popping in late Sunday night, ate the cold leftovers straight out of the pan. They seemed mighty pleased about it. In fact, my mom, after cramming an especially loaded fork-full into her mouth, yelled at the rest of us, “That’s it. I’m not eating anything else tonight. No more food!” This is what she does—loud public announcements, especially in regards to food—when her internal resolve can not withstand.

    Or maybe she was just fed up with me trying to foist all my leftovers on her.

    Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes and Summer Squash
    Adapted from The Wednesday Chef

    I think the original recipe needs twice as many veggies as it calls for, so I’m adjusting the proportions accordingly. If you prefer a less veggie-to-pasta ratio, reduce the veggies by half. (In the photo, it looks like there are plenty of vegetables but that’s because I, in a fit of greed, dug them out of the tangly pasta.)

    You can switch up the veggies if you like, but I think that in order to provide enough juiciness, half should be tomatoes, cherry or Roma, preferably. Also, I’m not sure on the exact poundage. I filled a 9 x 13 pan in a single layer; if you skip the scales and just cover the bottoms of two 9 x 13 pans with chopped vegetables, you’ll be fine.

    1 pound of cherry or Roma tomatoes, bite-sized pieces
    1 pound of summer squash (yellow and/or green), bite-sized pieces
    1 handful torn basil leaves
    2 cloves garlic, minced
    1/3 – 1/2 cup olive oil
    ½ cup bread crumbs
    ½ cup Parmesan cheese, shredded fine
    1 teaspoon salt
    ½ teaspoon black pepper
    1 pound spaghetti, or other pasta such as penne, fettuccini, etc.

    Divide the chopped vegetables, skin side down, between two 9 x 13 pans. Drizzle with some olive oil, perhaps a quarter cup.

    In a separate bowl, combine the bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, garlic, salt, and pepper. Sprinkle over the vegetables.

    Bake the vegetables at 400 degrees for about twenty minutes, or until fork-tender. Remove from the oven and toss with the torn basil.

    While the vegetables are baking, cook the spaghetti according to package instructions. Drain.

    Combine the pasta and vegetables and toss with the rest of the olive oil. Add more salt and black pepper, if needed.

    Updated on August 2, 2010: Made this again, this time using 1 ½ pounds of cherry tomatoes. I stuffed them all into one 9 x 13 pan and they roasted up fine even though they were overlapping. The final tomato-pasta ratio was pretty good, but I still think it could have used more tomatoes, up to 2 pounds.

    It really truly is a wonderful dish.

    Updated August 17, 2010: This is soooooo delicious! We can’t get over how delicious it is! Like, REALLY delicious. I made it for supper tonight—two pounds of cherry tomatoes, no squash, one 9 x 13 pan. Didn’t bother to arrange the tomatoes in the pan skin-side down; just threw them in any which a-way. So easy and fast and—did I mention it yet?—DELICIOUS! I had three helpings and countless snitches post-dinner.

    About one year ago: A girlie outing
    About two years ago: The Baby Nickel, Cooked Oatmeal

  • Simple Bites: In the pits

    I’m over at Simple Bites today, talking about peaches and other stone fruits.

    I ordered four bushels of peaches this year, and two of nectarines. I’m always a little worried ahead of time, daunted by all the work I’m getting myself into. Then when the peaches show up, I get busy, and then when it’s all said and done, I’m just plain relieved and happy. It’s my annual peach ritual.

    Come to think of it, it’s my summer ritual, too.

    In honor of the peach, and a couple of her pit-y sisters, here are some recipes to make them shine.

    Apricots: Apricot Pandowdy, Apricot Honey Almond Cake, Preserving (drying and canning)

    Cherries: Roasted Cherry Vanilla Ice Cream with Dark Chocolate, Sour Cherry Crostatas, Three Reds Fruit Crumble

    Peaches: Canning, Peaches and Cream Ice Cream, Peach Tart