Tag Archives: vegetarian

THE FOOD OF MY PEOPLE: SEV PURI

Perhaps it is a generational symptom, or hazard, to experience times in one’s life that are later identified as having felt “like a movie.”  If serendipity, luck, or chance has played a large part, making one’s day unusually perfect or delightfully surprising, then “it was like a movie.”  If terrible things have taken place, things no one could have foreseen, things one feels one might not make it through, then “it was like a movie,” also.

Nearly everything about the summer of 2006 occurs, for me, like a movie.  This may well be the case because all of it is showcased, projected up on the screen of my mind, as if it happened to someone else.  As if it had been written, the frighteningly complete alignment of feeling and form, sure to please even the most exacting director.  Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for whatever hand laid out the minutiae of our lives that summer.  But living life like a movie will throw you off balance after a while.  “So let it be written, so let it be done.”

From one morning in Mumbai, a particularly cinematic recollection.  My father and I went out for a walk, just the two of us, traveling down the rickety elevator of his sister’s flat and out into the street.  We worked across a few busy streets to the Five Gardens, where paths are reserved for pedestrians.  The gardens are really more like well-shaded parks gated off from traffic.  Of course, everywhere you turn in Mumbai is a veritable garden; given the hothouse climate, all manner of flowers and greenery grow.

Each of the five gardens contains a different buzz of activity—a rousing game of cricket underway on one dusty circle, some quiet games of chess between old men under the shade of palm trees. At that point in my life, I aspired to be one of those people who can eat street food.  I had read Bourdain, I bought into the romance of late nights, authenticity, and machismo.  I believed him when he says that you don’t really know a place until you eat what everyone who lives there is lining up to eat on some random street corner.  And I was willing to sacrifice some nights of peaceful sleep for a stomach of iron and some really good noodle bowls—I just hadn’t had much of a chance.

In between trips to India, I only made one trip outside of the States—a college jaunt to Amsterdam, where the bragging rights for eating street food are not nearly as high as, say, Thailand or Japan.  I did, however, take the liberty of consuming several cones of warm European frites with spicy mayonnaise in the wee hours of the morning, which I still crave when I am up very late and have been drinking.

I also remember, very distinctly, watching my father stand in the middle of an open market in Mexico and risk his life (and my mother’s wrath) to eat fish tacos.  I was dying to take a bite myself, but I was only ten and, at that point in my life, unable to defy her.  More than a decade later, on that morning walk, I jumped at the chance to eat recklessly with my dad, to eat away from my mother’s watchful eye, to join my father in a little subversive act,  just one moment of defiance to make up for all of those years I placed myself unabashedly on my mother’s “side.”

With the paper rupees in my father’s wallet, we feasted on watermelon, mango, coconut milk straight from the fruit, and shared a crunchy helping of sev puri.  The Indian food smorgasborg, sev puri is a classic street food, a weird, delicious concoction of spicy cooked potatoes, raw onions, the option of boiled moong beans (they taste like mild peas but are a little more toothsome), and drizzles of dhania (cilantro) and imli (tamarind, my favorite) chutnies atop a bed of salty, crunchy chips and twigs made from chickpea flour.  Served in a big, Styrofoam cup with a plastic spoon, our snack was well worth the risk of intestinal distress, as well as my mother’s dismay, though we managed to keep the secret together, and I am spilling it now.

Sev Puri falls under the large umbrella of Chat, or snacks, along with its cousins bhel puri and pani puri.  As with most iconic food, there is much variety in the method and lively debate about just what constitutes true sev puri and what does not.  This version has been honed to my tastes, of course, but also to the ease and convenience of a lazy but satisfying pantry meal or an answer to the question “what should I feed all of these people who have suddenly appeared at my house?”  Stored properly, the dry ingredients will keep in your pantry for months, the chutneys freeze well, onions & cilantro are cheap, and if you’re like me, you always have a random handful of potatoes hanging out somewhere, waiting to be cooked.  Am I right?


SEV PURI

You can (and should feel free to) add tomatoes, a drizzle of yogurt, roasted chickpeas, sprouted mung beans, chopped Serrano or other peppers, even diced mango to your sev puri.

For the bottom/crunchy layer of this snack, you’ll need to acquire a bag of packaged sev (fried bits of chickpea flour) and one of flat puris (small flatbreads, also fried).  Your local Indian grocery may have a bagged “sev puri mix” with these two pre-combined—just ask.  If you don’t use these up the first time, they’ll keep in the pantry if well-sealed in plastic bags.

for the potatoes:

2 lb. red new potatoes
1 T ground cumin
1 T ground coriander
2 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. Indian red pepper (lal mirch)
squeeze of lemon

Boil the potatoes whole until soft and easily pierced with a fork.  Cool, then peel and chop into half-inch chunks.  Toss with the spices and mix well.  Check for salt & taste but keep in mind that you’ll be adding many layers of flavor so you don’t want the potatoes to be overbearing.  Set aside until ready to serve.

for the dhania (cilantro) chutney:

2 bunches cilantro
2-inch knob fresh ginger, peeled
1/3 cup of peanuts, pumpkin seeds, or sunflower seeds (if salted, decrease the amount of salt you add to the chutney)
1 jalapeño, seeded if you like
¼ cup fresh lemon or lime juice
1 T ground cumin
1 tsp. salt
water

To prep the cilantro, wash it thoroughly and chop off the bottom portion of the stems.  If you like, you can pick off the leaves and discard all stem pieces, but I honestly don’t find this is necessary—just cut off the tough ends.

Process all ingredients in the blender, adding water until you reach your desired texture; I like mine just shy of smooth.

for the imli (tamarind) chutney:

Many people make imli chutney with dates or jaggery (palm sugar), but I learned from my mom to use apple butter instead and I think it’s way delicious-er.

1 cup apple butter*
½ cup tamarind paste
1 T ground cumin
1 T ground coriander
2 tsp. salt
½ tsp. Indian red pepper (lal mirch)
water

Combine all ingredients except water in a small saucepan.  Heat on low, adding water to thin the chutney.  Cook until the ingredients are incorporated, checking to be sure the flavors are balance.  The chutney should be sweet, with a hint of fire and strong “pucker” from the tamarind.  If you want more of any one flavor, add the corresponding ingredient.

Cool before storing in the fridge and freezer.  Be mindful that the chutney will thicken, so you may need to thin it again before serving.

* If you can get your hands on homemade apple butter, do.  Otherwise, it’s easy to find in the “peanut butter & jelly” aisle of your supermarket.

for the assembly:

I like to arrange the components along a counter or table so each person can assemble his/her own.  In the bottom of a bowl, add a heap of sev and a few puris, breaking up the latter with a spoon or fork.  Throw on some potatoes, then onions if you like, then cilantro if you like, and generous drizzles of one or both chutneys.

MINESTRONE

I didn’t grow up with many males in my life—twelve years in an all-girls’ school and no brother will do that to you—so it wasn’t until high school that I really began to build friendships with them.

Now, thankfully, there are these men in my life whom I love.  I mean, really, really love.  Men who can make me laugh with a one-line email, men who appreciate the noise my high heels make on pavement, men who care deeply for the people in their life, who watch “The West Wing” on DVD and keep Lincoln biographies and cookbooks and Spanish poetry and young adult fiction all stacked by their bedside.

Who have crushes on Mary Louise Parker.  Who have held my hand in art museums, or held me on a couch the night after my father’s funeral, or held their palm gently against the small of my back, ushering me into a door or through a crowded room.  Who write the most incredible letters, which I will save forever.  Who love their wives, their fiancées, their girlfriends, their sisters, mothers.  Who chide me into staying a little longer and drinking another beer (or Scotch or glass of wine).  Who will happily eat anything I put in front of them.


I look at my fourteen-year-old male students, who are so earnestly figuring out how to be men, how to flirt, how to build character, integrity, and swagger, and then I look at these men in my life: Dave, Phil, Stephen, Wayne, and I feel tremendous joy for the men I know my boys will grow up to become.

MINESTRONE

This recipe makes a big batch, but minestrone is the perfect “it’s still cold outside” refrigerator space-taker.  I always like to have mine with a good, golden-crusted grilled cheese.

1 large yellow onion
3 cloves garlic
3-4 small zucchini
3-4 small yellow squash
2 bunches fresh spinach (can substitute frozen), washed & roughly chopped
1 large (28 oz.) can crushed, fire-roasted tomatoes
4-6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cans kidney beans
2 T tomato paste
1 T dried oregano (double if using fresh)
¼ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
salt & pepper
olive oil

secret ingredient: Parmesan rind
optional: a few cups of cooked pasta

Dice the onion & mince the garlic.  In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat a fair amount of olive oil over medium-high heat.  Throw the onions in first and cook until they are a bit brown, then dial back the heat to medium and add the garlic.

While those two ingredients are making your house smell incredibly delicious, cut the zucchini & squash into small cubes, trying to keep them uniform without worrying too much over precision.  Add to the pot & sauté 5-8 minutes, until soft.

Now it’s time to toss almost everything in and let soup magic happen.  Tomatoes, stock, herbs, tomato paste, & Parmesan rind, if you’re using it.  Let your soup simmer for at least 45 minutes before adding the fresh spinach in batches, folding it in so it will wilt on its own in the hot soup.

Pull out the Parmesan rind (it will be gooey!) and toss in the beans, plus pasta if you’re using it.  Once everything has heated through, serve up in bowls or big mugs, garnishing with some fresh Parmesan and/or extra parsley, if you like.

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THE FOOD OF MY PEOPLE: ROASTED CAULIFLOWER WITH YOGURT SAUCE

This recipe is much more Indian-inspired than actually “Indian.” It’s not some old-country recipe the secrets of which my mother has passed down to me, but rather an idea I got out of a Cook’s Illustrated magazine a few years ago. There isn’t really anything authentic about it, in fact, and so it might not at all belong in the “food of my people” category, but you know what? It’s cheap, it tastes delicious, it’s easy to make, and it got me to actually EAT CAULIFLOWER.

A strange and lovely, flowery, blooming, cruciferous vegetable. Oddly photogenic, pretty good for you. Generally overcooked or masked by a tragic cheese sauce. Oh maligned cauliflower, redemption is near.

When I was a kid, I hated cauliflower. H-A-T-E-D it. Gobi, in Hindi, was one of my dad’s favorite things to eat: pickled, stuffed into paranthas (griddle breads), even raw. Oh how I used to gag and fuss in that dramatic way little kids do when it was even suggested to me that I might eat some.

But like so many other palate-changing moves that come in adulthood, I at some point found myself eyeing the vegetable in the grocery store, tilting my head and thinking “Hmmm…” and now I will eat plates and plates of this stuff, warm from the oven, with a little naan at hand. Cauliflower, my new best friend.

This happened with olives, too, in graduate school. As a little girl, I remember plowing through those tiny cans of black olives, balancing each one on the top of my index finger before popping it in my mouth. But I suppose I overdosed on olives because, from age 6-24, I was not interested. Yick, yeesh, yuck, ew.

But then, one magical night at my friend Cara’s tiny graduate school apartment, which she kept impeccably and impossibly decorated, I sat drinking through a couple of bottle of cava with my two best friends, faced with a dreamy Spanish-inspired spread of almonds, figs, prosciutto, Manchego, & you guessed it! Big, fat, luscious olives. Once anathema to me, they suddenly glistened like jewels and I found myself downing them one after another, briny revelation.

I’m not sure how these transformations happen, if something one day becomes unlocked in our brains or our stomachs, if the tongue has a mind of its own which it can change at will, if as we age and smell new things and live in new places and with new people, we shift, glacially, towards things that had once seemed impossible.

ROASTED CAULIFLOWER WITH YOGURT SAUCE
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

So here’s the thing: curry powder isn’t so much an authentic Indian ingredient. It isn’t even a consistent ingredient, seeing as how it’s actually a BLEND of spices. Therefore, the quality, taste, & heat of curry powders can vary widely, so it’s an ingredient where I suggest you go for quality: McCormick’s has a fine enough grocery-store accessible version; I’m currently using Penzey’s medium hot bottle.

All of that being said, I’m dying to try this same method with halved brussels sprouts—another often-hated vegetable I have grown to love. The caramelization that comes when roasting brings out a nuttiness in the sprouts and I think the flavors of the yogurt sauce would nicely offset their inherent bitterness.

ingredients:

1 head cauliflower
½ cup olive oil
1 ½ T curry powder
salt

pan: two large baking sheets or roasting pans, lined with foil
oven: 400˚

Remove any leaves from the cauliflower and trim the stem so it’s flush and the head will sit upright on a cutting board. Using a large knife and caution, cut wedges in the cauliflower about ½-inch thick all the way around, leaving as much stem intact as possible. The idea is to create cauliflower pieces which will lie flat on either side.

In a small bowl, combine the olive oil & curry powder. Distribute the cauliflower equally between the two baking sheets or roasting pans, then drizzle with half of the oil. Sprinkle the cauliflower with salt, then flip and do the same on the other side.

Roast in the oven for 10 minutes, then remove baking sheets so you can flip the pieces over and roast the other side. Cook an additional 10-15 minutes, or until the cauliflower is as tender as you want it (test with a fork). I like mine quite short of mushy, with a bite to it still.

If the pieces become too brown while cooking, simply cover with more foil. Serve when warm, with yogurt sauce.

for the sauce:

1 cup yogurt
¼ cup diced red onion
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 T lemon or lime juice
1 tsp. curry powder
salt
canola oil

Heat just a tiny bit of oil in a small saucepan and sauté the onions until very soft. Remove from heat and sprinkle the curry powder atop the onions, stirring to mix.

Combine the yogurt, onion mixture, citrus juice, & cilantro in a bowl. Stir thoroughly, then taste-test, adding a pinch of salt if you like.  Spoon over the warm cauliflower.

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THE FOOD OF MY PEOPLE: GREEN BEAN & SWEET POTATO SABJI

Please allow me to begin with the requisite disclaimers: I am but one Indian girl.  I do not represent all Indian people everywhere and I am by NO MEANS an expert on Indian food or cooking.  India is home to twenty-eight states, twice as many languages, and innumerable incarnations of what “Indian food” can look like.  Not to mention the fact that we Indians have disseminated ourselves all across the globe, mish-mashing our food cultures with the British, American, South African, Malaysian, etc.

Still…when I put out the call the other day to see what folks wanted to see more of on the blog, Indian food was the definite winner.  So I am giving in!  “The Food of My People” series starts today and will run every Tuesday for the next few months.  Don’t worry, for those of you utterly uninterested in making Indian food at home (no offense taken), “regular” fare will continue to show up every Friday.

The Indian recipes I’m going to post will be a total hodge-podge of regions and technique, utterly subjective and reflective of me.  They will also be fantastically delicious and adhere to the BJG standard of unfussy food OR fussy food that’s worth it.  I hope to expose you to more Indian “home cooking,” the kind of thing you can’t get in a restaurant and can pretty easily make at home (lots of those restaurant dishes aren’t very authentic or simple to make).  If you have any requests, throw them out in the comments or send me an email.  I’ll do my best to accommodate them!


One of the main things that can make cooking Indian seem intimidating are the seemingly exhaustive lists of unfamiliar ingredients; even I think it’s asking a lot for folks to go out and buy twenty spice bottles just to try one recipe.  For the purposes of this series, I’m listing some essentials and extras, the latter of which will serve those of you who’d like to build your Indian food repertoire.  If you’re uncertain about how frequently you’ll use these ingredients, I recommend you buy in small quantities (at a store which sells in bulk is a good choice.)  For the extras, get yourself to an Indian or Asian grocery store!  They can help you find what you’re looking for and the prices will be much cheaper.

ESSENTIALS:

•    fresh garlic
•    fresh ginger
•    onions
•    whole cumin seeds
•    ground cumin
•    ground coriander
•    ground red mirchi (chili), for heat

EXTRAS:

•    asafetida
•    cardamom
•    fresh cilantro
•    cumin seeds
•    fennel seeds
•    fenugreek seeds
•    garam masala
•    mustard seeds
•    sambar powder
•    turmeric

You’ll find that this recipe, like most of the rest I’ll be posting, makes a pretty good quantity of food.  That’s because I DON’T KNOW HOW TO MAKE SMALL AMOUNTS OF INDIAN FOOD.  It’s like, contrary to what I believe in.  You know?  Ethnic mothers who stuff you full at the table, then send you out the door with a plastic grocery bag full of old sour cream and Cool Whip containers, stuffed with leftovers?  I’m totally turning into one.

GREEN BEAN & SWEET POTATO SABJI

Serves 4 as a side, with leftovers

“Sabji” just means vegetable dish and this one is a favorite.  Simple and satisfying, this dish is a riff off of my mom’s original, which she made with white potatoes.  I personally like the way the flavor of the sweet potatoes plays off of the rich spices in this dish; serve it as an accompaniment to a meat entrée or as the main course itself, with store-bought naan or pita bread.

This recipe calls for just a few tablespoons of tomato paste, so opening a whole can of it is a pain.  I am in love with these tubes of paste from Amore.  Use what you need, then store the rest neatly in your fridge.

•    4 medium-to-large sweet potatoes
•    1 pound green beans
•    1/4 cup fresh ginger, peeled & minced
•    1 T black mustard seeds
•    1 T sambar powder
•    2 T tomato paste
•    ¼ teaspoon asfoetida (optional)
•    ½ cup water
•    3 T canola oil
•    salt

Prep the vegetables: peel & dice the sweet potatoes into roughly 1-inch chunks, then wash & remove the ends from the green beans, chopping them into inch-long pieces.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pan (with a fitted lid), heat the oil over medium-high heat. After 3-4 minutes, the oil should be quite hot but not smoking. Throw in the mustard seeds & sprinkle in the asfoetida. It’s essential to heat these two ingredients at the outset and let them get very hot or they will make the whole dish taste bitter.

Turn down the heat to medium; remove the pan from the heat, then add ginger. Return to the burner and cook until the ginger begins to soften, adding the sweet potatoes, sambar powder, water, & 1 T salt. Toss to ensure that the potatoes are well-coated with the spices.

Cover the dish, turn the heat down to medium-low, and allow the sweet potatoes to cook until tender, about 15 minutes.  Once you can “smush” a sweet potato with the back of your cooking spoon, add the green beans and cook for another 8-10 minutes, tossing in more water if necessary.

Once the green beans are bright and cooked to desired tenderness, fold in tomato paste to bind the dish. Taste the dish for salt & season accordingly.

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FOCACCIA

Yeast doughs don’t have to be scary, I promise.  They can actually be rather friendly, spongy and springy and smelling of earth.  You mix some humble and frankly unimpressive ingredients together (flour, water, sugar, salt, & oil), contribute a little sweat in the form of kneading, then leave it all in a bowl and walk away, only to come back in a few hours to find this:

Well, okay, the focaccia won’t actually make itself, but that would take the fun out of it anyway.  Then you’d miss out on the authentic, even sexy experience of standing at a floured counter, working through the contents of your mind via a big hunk of dough.  Not to mention the satisfaction of your teeth meeting the firm crust and pillowy crumb of bread you made BY YOURSELF.

You can top your foccacia with any combination of flavors you like; I will only recommend that you use good quality stuff.  Pair the fresh bread with a big, green salad and bottle of wine.  Finish with a cheese course if you’re feeling decadent.

This week, I asked my students to write Six-Word Memoirs and their examples were so fascinating, so varied, so revealing of who-they-are that I posed the question to my Facebook friends, too.  Some of my favorite results:

cheer for many, fan of few.
outgoing is fine, I try outrageous.
drop-out, divorced, drug-addict, better now, thanks.
I shouldn’t have told you that.

As for mine, I wrote half-a-dozen, felt like I couldn’t settle on one, but in writing this post, I am sure of it now: In the kitchen, I am free.

What’s yours?

FOCCACIA
original recipe from Saveur.com

I can’t rightly call this recipe “adapted,” since all I’ve really done is alter the method & play with the toppings.  Though the original recipe calls for you to top the dough with olives and tomatoes before baking, I found that this resulted in charred and chewy toppings—unappetizing, to say the least.

My strategy to combat this is two-fold: mix heartier toppings (such as caramelized onions, olives, or chopped rosemary) into the dough, save more delicate toppings (flat-leaf parsley, sundried tomatoes, or Parmesan) for topping, either towards the end of baking time or once the foccacia’s already been removed from the oven.

Basic dough:

1 ¼ tsp. active dry yeast

2 tsp. sugar

3 ½ cups flour, more for kneading*

1 T + 1 tsp. kosher salt

extra-virgin olive oil

Coarse sea salt

Possible add-ins/toppings:

Caramelized or raw onions
Black or green olives
Parmesan or feta cheese
Fresh or sun-dried tomatoes
Fresh or dried herbs: rosemary, parsley, oregano

oven: 475˚
pan: cast-iron skillet, deep-dish pizza pan, or a shallow, enamel-glazed pot

Combine yeast, 1 teaspoon of sugar, & ¼ cup warm-but-not-hot water.  The official temperature requirements are between 110-115 degrees, and I recommend you use an instant-read thermometer if you haven’t made a lot of bread before.  After a few batches, though, you’ll get a feel for the right heat on your fingertips.

Let the yeast mixture sit about 10 minutes—it should be foamy.  If it’s not, toss it out and start again.  Whisk together the flour, remaining 1 tsp. sugar, & salt in a large bowl.  Make a well in the center and pour in the yeast mixture, 1 T olive oil, & 1 cup warm water.  Mix with your hands until it holds together.

On a floured counter or work surface, knead the dough until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.  Curve the dough into a ball & place it in the bottom of a well-olive-oiled bowl.  Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel & let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in size, ~90 minutes to 2 hours.

After the first rise, preheat the oven to 475˚.  If mixing in ingredients, now is the time to do it, working any additions into the dough.  Liberally rub the pan you’re using with (still more!) olive oil, then transfer the dough to the pan, flipping it over once so both sides are coated in oil.  Gently stretch the dough to fit to it to the bottom of the pan.  Cover the whole thing with a kitchen towel and let it rise another hour.

Use your fingertips to dimple the surface of the dough, then drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt.  Bake until golden brown and cooked through, approximately 30 minutes.  If the surface of the foccacia becomes too dark, cover with aluminum foil for the remainder of baking time.  Top as you wish, either during the last few minutes of baking or once the foccacia’s come out of the oven.  Cool slightly on a wire rack before serving.

*You can make your foccacia whole-wheat by swapping out one cup of the all-purpose flour for the whole-wheat variety.  It’s pretty good!…though I prefer the more sinful regular all-white-flour version.

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KAREN’S MEXICAN RICE & “GRAD SCHOOL” BLACK BEANS

I cut my hair short in high school, for many reasons and for no reason at all.  Convenience, defiance, sophistication, some combination thereof.  It ranged from ear-length to pixie-short until I buzzed it all off my freshman year of college.  Head-shaving was the social experiment that I undertook with my fortuitously-assigned college roommate Rebecca. Bolder and defiant than I could conceive of being at that point in my life, Rebecca was my first true friend on campus (and remains one of my favorite people on the planet, I might add).  Shaving our heads was her idea.

Bless my poor father’s heart—he always harbored visions of me with long, flowing tresses like the hip-shaking heroines of the Bollywood movies he loved to watch.  He was forever making remarks that he found funny but I found annoying, encouraging me to “grow it out!” and “not so short!”  But to my surprise and perhaps disappointment, he handled my shaved head remarkably well, voicing no critiques and even silencing my mother who clearly thought I had lost my mind.

Though I never shaved it again–

a) I’m not cut out to live a renegade lifestyle

b) my head is oddly shaped

c) lack of hair dampened my flirting potential, which truly affected my quality of life

–once my hair grew back, I continued to style it short.  I had no reason to wear it longer and plenty of reasons to keep it cropped: I lived in hot climates (Memphis, then Houston, then Tucson), I like a low-maintenance morning routine, I had been told once or twice that I looked like the Indian Halle Berry.  Why mess with a good thing?

In my first semester of graduate school, my parents proposed a trip to India for my cousin’s wedding.  She was three years my junior and had become engaged to a man that she met herself at another family wedding and secretly “dated” before coming home and suggesting to her parents that he might be a good match for her.  I rather liked this schema: it was spunky and made the prospect of braving a wedding (at which I would be the noticeably older, unmarried, American cousin) far more palatable.  Not to mention, I had not been to India, the country of my parents’ birth, in over a decade, and my father and I had only traveled there together once before, when I was an infant.

A few months before we were scheduled to leave for India, my father asked me to grow out my hair.

“Nito,” he said, after he had so cleverly taken me out to lunch in Memphis, plied me with pulled pork barbecue and worked me into quite the food coma, “What if you grew your hair for a little while?  Please don’t cut it before we go to India.  It will just look better, your relatives will like to see it, not so short.”

I knew that my relatives weren’t the only ones who would like to see my hair “not so short,” but refrained from saying so.

“But doesn’t the nose ring count for anything?” I asked him, mostly teasing since I had pierced it on a whim in college, not out of any deep-seated cultural agenda.

“Maybe a five-point bonus,” he said, keeping the joke.  “But your hair could look so nice!”

He said “could,” as in “doesn’t right now,” which I noticed but also choose to ignore.  Instead, I decided to leave my hair untouched.  After all, I had cut it for no particular reason, surely I could grow it out when it meant so much to my father?

“I’m going to cut it as soon as we get back, though, okay?”

“Okay,” he consented.  “It’s your hair.”


My father died six weeks after we returned from India.  Except for the occasional trim, I haven’t cut my hair since.  I grow my hair for a dead man who carried his hair on his arms and his legs and his chest and his back, but not his head, curling and dark. He would be so pleased if he could see this hair.  This hair, my hair, all the way down my back, long and flowing the way he always wanted.

Tomorrow, I’m having my first hair cut in nearly four years.  Not an arbitrary cut, but one that will help mark my twenty-seventh birthday and which will result in an envelope full of my hair being mailed here.  You see, my friend Rebecca and I have many things in common: we’re giant nerds, know more Disney song lyrics than we really ought to admit, have serious sweet tooths, and love to craft things with our hands.  But the most powerful thing we share is the one we never counted on; losing a parent within nine months of each other.

Rebecca’s mom Karen fought an exhausting battle against cancer for two-and-a-half years, one of those terrifying up-and-down rides full of uncertainty and pain, loss and hope.  My friend put her life on hold to tend her mother’s every need, exhibiting the kind of courage and relentlessness that humbles one who witnesses it.  By the time Karen was diagnosed, right in the middle of our senior year of college, Rebecca had become my family and I, part of hers.  My own father’s death very surprisingly interrupted the trajectory of things; who could have guessed that I would be the one to lose a parent first?

To this day it stuns me, how in the midst of their own sadness and grief, Rebecca and her parents tended to me so unselfishly.  I remember spending part of an afternoon at the hospital with them, not long after my father had died and during a time along the cancer roller-coaster when chemo had stripped Karen’s head completely clean of hair.  She had wigs, but they didn’t come close to recreating her.  The most realistic ones are, of course, the most expensive.

“Your hair is so beautiful, Nishta,” she told me, in a voice I’ll always be able to hear.  “I wish I could wear it.”

“I’ll grow it out for you,” I told her.  “I promise.”

Tomorrow I’ll be making good on my promise at the same time I let go of the hair that feels so connected to my father.  I’m nervous, excited, and proud, and I promise to post some before-and-after pictures on Friday, provided that I don’t become totally incapacitated by all of the food I’m planning to eat between now and then (with a birthday today & Thanksgiving tomorrow, let’s hope I can even fit into my pants on Friday!)

I’m wishing all of you very festive and delicious Thanksgivings, full of people you love and lots of linger-worthy moments.

KAREN’S MEXICAN RICE & “GRAD SCHOOL” BLACK BEANS

Rebecca’s mama made the world’s best home-cooked Mexican rice, and she generously passed on her secret to me through her daughter: 1 ¾ cups liquid for every 1 cup of rice. Her ratio yields flavorful rice with the ideal texture and every time I make it (which is often), I picture her in my kitchen, proud that I’m working her recipe.

This rice makes an excellent accompaniment to so many things, but my favorite pairing is with a big pot of simple, vegetable-laced black beans.  “Grad school food,” I call it, given how cheap it is to make, while at the same time being comforting and tasty.  Feel free to swap in or out other vegetables such as chayote, fresh spinach, mushrooms, etc.

KAREN’S MEXICAN RICE

1 cup long-grain rice
1 ¾ cups vegetable or chicken broth
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 medium ripe tomatoes, diced or 1 can diced tomatoes, drained
1 T cumin
½ T chili powder
salt
vegetable oil

optional: sliced onion

In a large skillet with a fitted lid, sauté the garlic (plus onion, if you’re using it) in a few tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium heat.  After two minutes, up the heat to medium-high and add the rice, toasting in the oil until the rice begins to brown and become fragrant, about 5 minutes.

Pour in the chicken or vegetable broth, then stir in the spices.  Cover the mixture with the lid and allow it to come to a boil.  Once the mixture boils, dial back he heat to medium-low, stirring periodically until the liquid is nearly gone and the rice is fully cooked.

Toss in the tomatoes and check the rice for salt, seasoning to your liking before serving hot.

“GRAD SCHOOL” BLACK BEANS

2 cans black beans, fully or partially drained*
1 can corn (or 2 ears’ worth of fresh corn, off the cob)
2 carrots, peeled & sliced ½-inch thick
1 red bell pepper, seeded & diced
1 ½ T cumin
1 T garlic powder
1 tsp. salt
vegetable oil

optional: ½ or a whole jalapeño, minced
potential garnishes: grated cheese, sour cream, cilantro, salsa, raw onion, shredded cabbage

In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, sauté the bell peppers (jalapeño, if you’re using it) and carrots in a bit of vegetable oil until soft.  Add the black beans, corn, & spices, then mix well.

Cover and turn down the heat to low.  After 10-12 minutes, the beans should be heated through.  Check for salt, then serve over rice.

*If you want drier beans, drain all the way.  For a soupier effect, drain only one of the two cans.

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FEELIN’ KINDA SUNDAY: STUFFED MUSHROOMS

This is one of those “back pocket” recipes; an easy-to-make, hard-to-mess-up crowd-pleaser you keep on hand and whip out when you need something tried and true.  Oh stuffed mushrooms, you have never failed me:

stuffed mushrooms
Mushrooms are an ingredient I tend to buy more of as the weather cools.  Their rich earthiness  seems right, somehow, for fall.  I’ve made these junior stuffed mushrooms many times, for dinner parties, Thanksgiving, and football Sundays, of course.

The best thing about ‘em?  You can pre-make everything ahead of time, leaving the stuffed mushrooms on a foil-covered broiler pan in the fridge until ready to bake off.  They’re also relatively cheap to make (especially if you go vegetarian) and still work with all kinds of variations: use couscous instead of breadcrumbs, add in sautéed peppers for a kick, substitute green onions for regular ones.

Though the little ones are most fun for a party or get-together, stuffed portabellas are wonderful for a weeknight dinner, since you can prep them the night before.  One of my favorite stuffings for big ‘shrooms: chorizo, wild rice, celery, & bell pepper.

At the moment, I’ve got a lot in my back pocket (both literally & figuratively):

-stewing over logo designs (!) for the new-and-improved BJG website I hope to debut in early 2010…printable recipes?  You asked for them, you’ll get them!

-joyous celebration that a cold-ish front seems to finally be coming through Texas

-a final grocery list to attend to, along with a million details and “to-dos” before 45 (count them, forty-five) people descend on our house tomorrow night for the annual Carroll/Mehra Diwali Party!

I hope to share a lot more about the party with you next week; our amazing photographer Sonya will be here, documenting every dish and celebratory moment. Look for lots of photographs, details, & a recipe or two on Tuesday.

We are excited, busy, and hopeful that it will not rain.  Most importantly, I feel grateful to have the resources and time to gather the people I love around me and feed them large quantities of food.

I’ll catch ya’ll on the flip side!  In the meantime, enjoy your weekend.

STUFFED MUSHROOMS
The recipe here allows you to make both vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions in the same batch.  If you want to do meaty mushrooms only, go ahead and cook the sausage with the onions & stems.

ingredients: stuffed mushrooms curvy

2 packages white mushrooms, cleaned
1 white onion, chopped finely
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup plain breadcrumbs, store-bought or homemade
grated cheese of your choice (Parmesan, cheddar, Italian mix)
herbs de Provence
butter
olive oil

optional: one link of a sausage of your choice (I used mild Italian)

Remove stems from the mushrooms, reserving a little less than half.  Trim & chop the stems finely, adding them to the onions & garlic.

In a heavy-bottomed skillet, combine 3 T each of the butter & olive oil.  Let sit over medium heat until the butter is foamy, then add the chopped vegetables.

Sauté the mixture until translucent, then remove from heat and toss in the breadcrumbs.  Combine the mixture so the breadcrumbs are “wet.”

Fold in about a ¼ cup of cheese.  Season with 1 tsp herbs de Provence, then stop to taste for flavor & salt, making adjustments if needed.

In a separate pan, crumble and brown the sausage.  Reserve it for later—after you’ve stuffed the vegetarian mushrooms, mix the sausage into the remaining filling and stuff the other half.

Place the mushrooms on a broiler pan or baking sheet.  Stuff each mushroom with a small spoonful of filling (of course, bigger mushrooms will take more), mounding the filling just a bit at the top.

At this point, you can cover the mushrooms with foil and stash in the oven.  When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 350°.

Bake the mushrooms for 12-15 minutes until cooked through.  If you’d like a little crunch, you can turn on the broiler for just a minute or two, but watch the mushrooms carefully!

Serve warm.

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