Archive for April 2009

Hunger is the mother of invention

April 26, 2009

A near-empty larder can result in some interesting platefuls.  Sometimes, the results are good enough that I later shop with the specific intent of repeating them. Here’s one success story:

Toast some rice and chopped nuts in butter. Add salt and water. Bring to boil, cover, simmer until done, let rest a bit. Add some lemon juice, a whole bunch of green stuff, chopped, and some white stuff. Stir gently and correct seasonings. Serve warm or cool.

My first, desperate (yet delicious) version made use of walnuts, garlic, some past-its-prime arugula, Greek yogurt. The most recent variation (below) had pistachios, parsley, lemon zest, ricotta. I’m looking forward to the day when I can serve this with a side of sliced home-grown tomatoes…000_0540

Proportions of (raw) rice : nuts : water : white stuff = 2 : 1 : 2-3 : 2

**Cooking science tip: the addition of lemon or some kind of acid, besides being tasty, helps keep the greens bright.

Shall we gather at the river?

April 25, 2009

I have been thinking a lot lately about the transmission of knowledge, about teaching and learning. Sharath Rangaswamy is in town. He is the grandson of Pattabhi Jois, who was in turn a student of Krishnamacharya, whose influence on yoga as practiced around the world today goes way beyond the scope of this blog.

While part of me was interested in attending Sharath’s New York workshop, the idea of practicing with over a hundred people, and a teacher who didn’t know me, seemed not very fruitful. But then, “out of respect for Sharath and the lineage he represents,” my teacher closed school and encouraged us to go. And at a lecture halfway through the week, he spoke a bit about this idea of lineage: spending a few days with Sharath is not so much about learning something special or new as it is about immersing ourselves in a river of knowledge, a tradition that he was born into, to which he has given himself entirely.

Looked at from that perspective, each of us that crowded into the Chinatown Y had something in common with the young singer who presents herself for a master class with the Distinguished Artist. Technique and artistry need time to develop, as does the student/teacher relationship, but that doesn’t mean a half-hour in dialogue with greatness can’t also offer something of value. Occasionally there may be an “a-ha moment”—what happens if you do it this way? But even if the student doesn’t come away with anything particularly special or new, there is a potential for some subtle transformation of her relationship with her art and the artists who have come before her.

People ask me—especially when I’m serving some Louisiana specialty—if my mother taught me to cook. While I remember her teaching me a couple of specific techniques, like how to make a properly dark roux, there wasn’t much in the way of formal tutelage. And in fact, my gumbo is very different from my mother’s, which is very different from her mother’s, despite the similarity of ingredients and basic techniques. I do remember asking my granny to show me how she made one particular dish, but I was never able to reproduce it in the same way. Still, every time I sit down at her table, at my mother’s table, I am immersing myself in that heritage, that river of knowledge, and it finds its way into my own kitchen practices, into my own attempts to nourish myself and those I love.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said we never step into the same river twice.  He was speaking of the fact that the waters are constantly moving forward, but of course we are different, too; not only are our physical bodies undergoing constant change, we are always accumulating new experiences and ideas.

Good cooks know that slavish allegiance to a recipe can spell trouble: the best results come only when we are attentive to the humidity of the day, the size of the lemon, the thickness of the filet, the age of the dried beans, the tastes of our guests. And while there is nothing wrong with a carefully planned menu, any cook worth his salt will find a way to accommodate the unexpected at-its-peak vegetable that catches his eye in the market. 

My yoga practice might seem to be the part of my day that demands/admits the least variation. The sequence of poses never changes. But I do. I am changed by how far I walked the day before, by what I ate, by how much I slept. And I am changed by my teachers—those who know me well, and those whom I’ve simply swum beside for a few days.

Baby, it’s (still) cold outside

April 20, 2009

Tomorrow, according to the calendar, we will be one month into spring. You could have fooled me. Today New York is (again) rainy and windy and cold. Just the kind of day when you want to feed yourself something comforting and delicious. Some people keep well-stocked pantries that allow them to act on such culinary whims without, say, going out into the rain and wind and cold. I am not one of those people, and the cupboard was especially bare this afternoon.000_0531


A container of yogurt that had been left behind by a houseguest was on the cusp of expiration, so using that was a must. And I had some potatoes. OK. I googled yogurt and potatoes, and this offered an appealing starting point. Of course, I didn’t have an onion or  green chilies or turmeric or fresh ginger or cilantro or even parsley.  But I figured I could make do.

Days like this make me as hungry for acts of food preparation as for the food itself, so instead of  serving the dish over rice I decided to make paratha, which offers some good opportunities for mixing and squeezing and pounding and rolling and such.  (The method I’ve threaded through my take, below, on yogurt and potatoes is borrowed from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.)


1. When you can’t stand to sit at the computer another second, pause to mix white flour and wheat flour and water (2:2:1, plus some salt) for paratha. Set aside to rest and finish answering e-mails.

2. Film the bottom of a saucepan with oil. Turn to medium high and throw in two handfuls of frozen pearl onions. Cut two largish potatoes into cubes. Give the onions a shake, then add potatoes & some salt to pan. 

3. Make a drink while potatoes & onions brown on one surface. Give them another shake or two as you evaluate your cocktail.

4. Dissolve a generous teaspoon of red curry paste in about  ½ cup of water. Pour into pot. Stir up brown bits from bottom. Cover and reduce heat to simmer.

5. Prepare paratha. “Pinch off pieces of dough 1 ½ to 2 inches in diameter. Roll each piece into a 4-inch disk and brush with butter. Roll up like a cigar, then press into a coil not unlike a cinnamon bun.”

6. Sometime before you make it through the paratha dough, the potatoes will probably be tender. Turn off heat. Throw a few handfuls of frozen peas into the pot and then cover so they can thaw. Continue preparing paratha. Once all the coils are done, roll them about ¼ inch thick and brown over medium high heat in an iron skillet, brushing with more butter if you like. Keep warm.

7. Stir 8 oz of yogurt into the potato mixture and give it a little more heat. Adjust seasonings. Top with lemon zest and serve with paratha.000_0539

Convenience food

April 18, 2009

At five minutes to bedtime on Thursday night, I flicked the switch in the bathroom and got a flash, a pop, then nothing. These are the times when I am grateful to live in a city: it’s about half a block and one quick turn to a 24-hour Rite Aid. And there was light.

Yesterday’s assignments included some program notes for an upcoming recital. No problem: New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is less than a ten-minute walk from my apartment, and I located the scores I needed in a matter of minutes. (For free. I will never get over my glee at the existence of such a marvelous institution.)

But there is a price for all this proximity and convenience: we New Yorkers start to develop a warped perception of distance and time. (Travel to the east side? Not if I can avoid it, and I usually can.) Yesterday, at the end of a very long day at the computer, I contemplated ordering in. Nothing scandalous about that. Everyone does it. Except me. I can probably count on my fingers the number of times I have in the three years I’ve lived in the city, the primary reason being that I’m too cheap. Also, I tend to like my own cooking better than that of just about anyone else. And I like to know exactly what I’m putting into my body.

It was more of a battle than it should have been, but eventually my better self won out and I walked the four blocks (four blocks! sheesh! what is wrong with me?) to Fairway. It was a beautiful spring day—the first—and there were lots of small people underfoot, many of them licking ice cream. It was good to get out. But even surrounded by all kinds of delicious provisions, it was hard to get excited about cooking.

There is convenience food, and then there is convenience food. (In The Eater’s Manifesto, Michael Pollan suggests that we not consume anything our great grandparents wouldn’t recognize as food, which pretty much takes care of all those products processed and packaged for our consumption.)

I ended up doing convenience my way: an avocado smashed onto a couple of pieces of coarse multi-grain toast, topped with sprinkle of coarse salt and a couple of grinds of pepper. Then half an apple, a bit of cheese and a handful of walnuts. Completely satisfying. 

It might as well be spring

April 14, 2009

Ever wonder about arugula roots? Neither had I, but these were clean and plump and kind of intriguing.

000_0528The verdict? Kind of like horseradish, but greener-tasting and not quite the bite. It occurred to me that arugula-infused vodka might be very interesting. I’ll have to remember that for when my garden starts producing. NYC greens are a bit to dear for that kind of experimentation.

The rest of the green stuff went into a very springy dish of rice, pearl onions, peas, red pepper, arugula, pecorino romano, lemon. Delicious. 


Bayou hallelujah

April 13, 2009

Life isn’t fair, and sometimes that works out in your favor. Just ask the Catholics who live in south Louisiana. Fish on Fridays may count as mortification of the flesh in certain land-locked locales, but I’ve never heard anyone in bayou country complain about being deprived of red meat and/or poultry.

It’s even harder to deny the moral slipperiness of fish as penance when you consider how we choose to celebrate after forty days of Lenten “fasting.” In most places, Easter alleluias are followed by a mid-day meal featuring some kind of roast beast—a leg of lamb, perhaps a ham. But in my family, the fruits of the bayou remain at the center of the table.

So, let us raise up crawfish bisque. Keep your chocolate bunnies; for me this is the taste of Easter. It’s made of ingredients that can be found in any number of common Cajun dishes, but its preparation is so labor-intensive that I’m about as likely to construct a multi-tiered wedding cake from scratch as I am to try my hand at it. So I will not attempt a recipe, but for those poor souls who have no idea what I’m talking about, the basic architecture is as follows:

1. Start with a pile of crawfish. Pull off the tails, then use your fingernails to split the undersides of the shells and extract the tail meat and fat. Each hard-shelled crustacean will yield about a teaspoon of meat—maybe. The other part of the animal—“the head”—encloses various organs and is studded with a number of appendages. Get rid of everything, inside and out, except a large (relatively speaking) hollow curl of shell, between one and two inches long and just under an inch in diameter. 

2. Mince the tail meat fine with binding agents and seasonings. These will undoubtedly include the “holy trinity” of Creole cooking: onion, bell pepper, celery, in roughly equal proportions. The other ingredients vary from cook to cook, but the final mixture is sure to be highly seasoned.

3. Using a very small spoon, stuff this mixture back into the cleaned shells, each of which will hold approximately one bite. 

4. Make a dark roux and use this as a base for a rich brown gravy. Add any leftover crawfish and seasonings. Simmer the stuffed shells in the gravy. Serve over white rice.

It’s easy to see why this dish belongs to the feast, and I suppose one might make the case that a simpler seafood preparation could still properly be considered fasting. Except. I’m not sure we Louisianians grasp the concept of a non-celebratory meal. 

Flat bean, round bean, pink bean, brown bean

April 9, 2009

Back when I worked in an office, I used to occasionally go to an Indian place around the corner for lunch: a couple of selections, plus rice, dal and naan for about six dollars. One day, there were TWO choices of dal on the steam table. What’s the difference, I asked? Well, explained the server, this one is yellow dal and this one is black dal.

Um, thanks for clarifying.

The lentil is such a cute bean in its dried form. The pearly peachy “red” lentil, in particular, looks like something you might scatter across a frosted cupcake. So it is particularly disappointing that, when cooked, every color has the tendency to turn to a dull-colored, blah-tasting sludge. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially when eaten alongside something bright and complicated. But it will not do if you’re relying on the same beanpot for a week’s lunches. Here’s one attempt to create a little more interest:

Cover the bottom of a pot with olive oil and turn to medium high. Add about a tablespoon of mustard seeds, a few crushed cardamom pods, and a thin-sliced fresh jalapeno. After a few minutes, throw in a generous handful of dried unsweetened coconut. Stir until coconut is browned, then add water and a 16 oz bag of red lentils. There water should cover the lentils by about an inch, maybe a little more. Bring to a boil. Cut a large potato into half-inch chunks and add to the pot. Bring back to boil. Taste a lentil. If they are beginning to soften, add salt, then cover and take off heat. Allow to finish cooking off heat for an hour or so. Pour off extra water, if any. Then stir in juice and zest of one lemon, plus a bunch of cilantro, chopped.000_0512


I didn’t really know what to expect from the coconut. Turned out not to add much in the way of flavor, but it was a real boon in terms of texture—lots of little chewy strands running through all the sludgy softness. Still not the most attractive of dishes (maybe a little tomato paste next time for color?) but mighty tasty.