Party

I wonder if Kevin realized, back when we first started dating more than twenty-five years ago that he would, several times a year, be drafted into being support staff for massive cooking efforts. I cooked for pretty close to three days straight for this party (with a 6 hour break on Friday for teaching) — apparently, this is my version of a marathon. It is utterly exhausting (I plan to sit on the couch all day today), but also super-fun in some hard to quantify sense.

Part of it is the cooking itself — running through mostly dishes that I have made so many times that I can make them without thinking, utterly on autopilot, while mixing in a few that are stretches for me, or new experiments. Tasting to make sure I remembered the salt, and the lime juice. Finding new shortcuts — the biggest help this year was a combo: 6 bags of frozen chopped onions from Pete’s (I cleaned them out), sautéed Thursday night in big pots with cumin seed, mustard seed, and from-a-jar chopped ginger and garlic. Just dump them in the pots with some oil, bring to high, then turn it to low and let them sweat down for 45 minutes or so — you barely need to stir. My mom told me she’d started doing that recently, making the onions in advance and then just portioning them out for each curry, and it’s a huge timesaver.

A lot of the fun is the logistical challenge of it, which I kind of love — it stretches a part of my brain in enjoyable ways. My little scribbled lists are all over the place — here is the next grocery list. Here is the complete list of dishes. Here is the list of tasks for day of party, in time order. 2:00 – set out tables, chairs, and tablecloths. 2:30 – assemble fruit and veggie trays take cheese out of the fridge. 3:00 – make punch, shower and dress. 3:30 – start frying appetizers. 4:00 – party! Here is the list of tasks to hand off to other people. Four different grocery stores to get the right ingredients in three days. Planning the schedule so that everything gets done in time, and that hot things come out hot.

One microwave + one stove make this last a pretty serious element of the challenge — some of my friends have a second stove in the basement, which would definitely simplify that, but I can’t justify it for using it 2-3 times / year. So we scramble and plan a bit instead, and are grateful that Amanda is willing to take on the task of putting things into the microwave and pulling them out again, stirring and testing as she goes. In a few years, Kavi will be old enough to handle that task, but she’s not quite there yet.

The Sri Lankan appetizers (which we call ‘short eats’) are particularly labor-intensive. I could have had some catered (the rolls and cutlets, from a Sri Lankan family up near Devon), but I like mine better. So that entails several hours of additional people’s labor — Kat and Michael and Kavi on Friday night, making cutlets and crepes for the rolls, Kat and Michael again on Saturday early afternoon, egging and breading the cutlets, assembling and slicing the ribbon sandwiches, and a host of early party attendees on Saturday late afternoon, egging and breading the rolls, while I stand at the stove and fry everything.

That last is actually something I’d like to hand off, so I could be talking to guests as they arrive — but if you’re not used to deep-frying, it can be intimidating. Maybe next time, I should find a party guest in advance willing to deep-fry for me, or be sure Kevin won’t be busy with other things then. A lot of this requires delegating, which is complicated by the delegated folks’ needing the skills for it.

In twenty years, perhaps I will have trained a little coterie of locals in the subtleties of rolling cutlets and assembling rolls. Kat’s mackerel cutlets were rolled perfectly this time — honestly, she’s neater than I am. And Michael P. brings his scientist background to the ribbon sandwiches — the fillings were so finely distributed, they looked completely professional. Somehow, it all comes together in the end.

Spring Sale!

I’ll be making Sri Lankan marshmallows with Kavya this week, and sending them out as part of a spring book sale. Will run it for just the first week of April, so if this sounds appealing, get your orders in quick!

Spring Books Into Flowers Sale!

In spring, a person’s thoughts turn to dreams of flowers, and how better than to sell a few books and artisanal hand-made Sri Lankan sweets and dark-roasted curry powder? I’m clearing out a bit more of the basement book stock — U.S.-only, I’m afraid, due to food regulations and shipping costs. Happy to sign / dedicate any books, of course!

– Bodies in Motion (Sri Lankan immigrant stories) hardcover: $15
– A Taste of Serendib Sri Lankan cookbook: $10
– Torn Shapes of Desire (erotic fiction and poetry: $10 (TS is out of print, so when they’re gone, that’s it…26 copies left)

– Cashew milk toffee (3 pieces): $12
– Chai spice truffles (2 pieces): $8
– Chili-chocolate truffles (2 pieces): $8
– Vanilla-rose marshmallows (2 pieces): $8
– Mango-lime marshmallows (2 pieces): $8 (note: experimental!)

– 2 oz bag homemade curry powder: $5
– 4 oz bag: $7

+ Shipping & Handling: $5 / order

Comment below or e-mail mohanraj@mamohanraj.com with the subject line SPRING BOOKS to reserve your copies; I’ll take orders as they come in. Please note which books you’d like signed, and if you want just a signature, or dedicated to someone.

Transliterate

Putting my dad to work — he kindly went through the TOC of the new Sri Lankan cookbook and corrected all my transliterations. I got a *few* right…

In my defense, the issue is that there are gazillion ways to transliterate Tamil words, and if you just google, you’ll get a lot of variations. Especially since some of the letters just don’t exist in English — three variants of an ‘l’ sound, or a ‘ng’ sound, for example. But my dad is something of a purist and a scholar about Tamil, so this way, we get pretty close to how it would sound in Sri Lankan Tamil.

Curry Leaves by Mail

I was excited to hear that you can buy fresh curry leaves by mail on Amazon now — I had to try it because even though I have a little curry tree at home that I pick from, I’m constantly hearing from people who want to make my recipes and can’t find curry leaves locally.

I’m glad to report that these are just fine. They’re not the strongest curry leaves ever — you might want to double the amount for full flavor.  But they certainly work.  I threw one stalk into a beef curry, and since I’m not making curry again for a few days, put the rest of the bag in the freezer, and will pull more stalks out as needed.  This is one ounce’s worth, sold by Monsoon Spice Company.

Eggplant Curry / Kattharikai Kari

(30 minutes draining time + 30 minutes, serves 6)

My mother’s eggplant curry was always a huge hit at Sri Lankan dinner parties, and is particularly popular with vegetarians.

1 lb eggplant, roughly 1-inch cubes
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
2 onions, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup oil or ghee
1 tsp cumin seed
1 tsp black mustard seed
1 dozen curry leaves
1 tsp brown sugar
1 tsp Sri Lankan curry powder
1/2 cup coconut milk

1. Prep eggplant — rub with turmeric and salt and then set in a colander to drain at least 30 minutes, which will draw out the bitter water. Blot dry with paper towels.

2. Sauté onions in oil on medium-high, stirring, with cumin seed, black mustard seed, and curry leaves, until golden.

3. Add eggplant, sugar, and curry powder, and sauté for another ten minutes or so, until eggplant is nicely fried. (Add more oil or ghee if needed.)

4. Add coconut milk and simmer for a few minutes until well blended. Serve hot with rice or naan—particularly nice for a vegetarian dinner with lentils as the main protein.

Variation: Eggplant and bell pepper work well together in this dish; just add chopped bell pepper about five minutes into frying the eggplant for a nice sweet element to the dish. Sometimes I make a nightshade curry, adding potatoes and tomatoes as well — small cubed potatoes would go into the onions first, then eggplant and spices, then bell pepper, then tomato, with a few minutes between each addition.

NOTE: I was wanting something a little spicier, so this time I added some chopped green jalapeños when I added the eggplant. Yum.

Cauliflower ‘Rice’

The experiments continue — tried cauliflower ‘rice’! I wouldn’t say I like it as well as rice, but it’s pretty okay, esp. if sautéed with a bit of ghee first, and served with a nice chicken curry and kale sambol. Feels more culturally appropriate for Sri Lankan food than shirataki, certainly.

Rice & Quinoa

Tried making 1/2 rice + 1/2 quinoa (TJ’s mix of white, red, black) in the rice cooker. Not bad! A little chewier than just rice, but I think it might be okay with curries. Hmm…

Sausage, Cannellini, Pasta and Peas

(45 minutes, serves 6)

You may remember that I’m on something of a kick to convince the kids to eat beans, as part of an attempt to get us to eat healthier and also less carnivorously.  (I don’t know that we’re likely to ever go all-vegetarian, given how much we like meat and how weak our wills are, but we can at least reduce how much meat we eat, which is better than nothing, for ourselves, for the animals, for the planet.)  You may also remember that pasta with broccoli rabe and cannellini beans was a dismal failure — the broccoli rabe was so bitter that the kids declared the entire dish inedible.  (Kevin and I liked it.)

For take two, I figured I would coax them into it.  I’d use flavors I knew they liked (chicken broth and Parmesan), I’d add in Italian sausage, and I’d cut the amount of beans in half, so they’d be a little less overwhelming.  Success was…mixed.  I thought it was delicious, though the peas were perhaps a little too similar in texture to the beans.  (Should’ve stuck with my original plan to serve this with broccolini, but I forgot to pick some up at the store, oops.)  Anand ate his entire plate and had seconds, hooray!

Kavya, sadly, avoided both beans and peas (she did have two bites of each, to show willing, but that was all I could talk her into), ate lots of sausage, and said that even her beloved pasta tasted strange to her.  Ah well.  I’ll probably try making this or something like it a few more times and hope that she gets more accustomed to the flavors.

2 T olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. Italian sausage, skin cut off
1/2 c. white wine
2 c. chicken broth
1 c. canned cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 c. grated Parmesan
1/2 t. crushed red pepper
2 c. cooked pasta (I used veggie penne)
1/2 c. frozen peas
additional Parmesan for grating on top

1. Sauté onion in olive oil on medium-high, stirring, until softened.  Add garlic and continue sautéing until onions are golden-translucent.

2.  Turn heat to high, add Italian sausage and break up, stirring, into small chunks, letting sausage brown a little.

3.  After a few minutes, add white wine to deglaze the pan, scraping up any browned bits.  Add chicken broth and beans, stirring to combine.  Add Parmesan and crushed red pepper.  Simmer on medium until sausage is cooked through, 5-10 more minutes.  By that point, the liquid should have reduced to a nice thick sauce.

4.  Stir in pasta and frozen peas and cook a few minutes more, until well combined.  Serve hot, passing additional Parmesan for grating.

Kith and Kin

hair, clothes, and kitchen
redolent with roasted spices
cooking deep into the night
with children and husband asleep
this much unchanged, untranslated

I stand over the pan, stirring
low and slow, singing to amuse
myself — haste would destroy
the spell of memory, consanguinity

coriander cumin fennel fenugreek
in order of decreasing amount
cinnamon cloves cardamom
curry leaves and chili powder

if I have to look up the ingredients
every time, am I insufficiently
authentic? eventually, I will grind
knowledge into my bones

Ammama, could you have guessed
your granddaughter would live
half a world away, would structure
love so differently, would pass your
recipes to a thousand strangers?

in the old days, recipes were hoarded
like gold bangles; a dowry locked
in your mind could not be stolen
now I give them away, scatter them
like kisses on the networked seas

I suspect it would frighten you,
what a daughter might give away
might lose forever. yet perhaps
the world is changing. a woman
may give herself away, undiminished

trust me. what the seas carried
away, they will return; your children’s
children are with you
though at times unrecognizable

bend down your head and breathe
deep, roasting scents tangled in my hair
see — you know me still. some things
come back to you, a thousandfold

Chicken Curry / Kozhi Kari

(1 hour, serves 6)

Continuing in the project of accustoming my children to Sri Lankan food, I made chicken curry last night, which is one of the classic dishes that you will find at many local restaurants.  I reduced the chili powder from my standard two tablespoons to just one, and that was the only change my daughter needed to be perfectly happy with the dish.  Hooray!  My son, sadly, thought it ‘tasted weird.’  We ended up supplementing his dinner with chicken nuggets out of the freezer.  (Standard recipe below.)

I suspect I will just have to keep making the curry, and keep having him taste it, until Anand is actually accustomed to it.  I should have undoubtedly started this process years and years ago, but better late than never, I suppose.  One of our goals for this year is to actually get the whole family eating the same dinner more often, which should, in the long run, make our lives a lot easier.

One thing worth noting in these photos is the color change from the second to third photo.  A key to a good chicken curry is having a tasty kulambu (or kuzhambu, depending on how you do the transliteration), which is basically the curry sauce or gravy.  Some people make it more liquid, some more thick (if you use potatoes in this dish, they will thicken the sauce).  In this recipe you build a fairly spicy sauce, and then add whole milk partway through the cooking process, which melds the flavors and mellows the spice level, lending your curry a creamy richness.

You can use other kinds of milk if you’d prefer, and in fact, coconut milk is often used in Sri Lanka, but coconut milk is a little rich for everyday cooking — my family tends to save it for special occasion meals.  I’ve used goat milk (works fine) and soy milk (a little thin, but acceptable).  Almond milk is quite thin, and has a distinct nutty flavor — it’s not bad, but it does take the curry in a different direction; if you can find cashew milk, that might be a better option.

Note:  If you’re using coconut milk, which is fairly sweet, you may want to switch out the ketchup for chopped fresh tomatoes + a little vinegar.  My mother started using ketchup (which has sugar in it already) to compensate for the lack of sweetness in cow’s milk, when she first came to America as an immigrant in 1973, and coconuts and coconut milk were not so easy to come by.

3-5 medium onions, diced
3 TBL vegetable oil
1 tsp black mustard seed
1 tsp cumin seed
3 whole cloves
3 whole cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick, broken into 3 pieces
1-2 TBL red chili powder
1 TBL Sri Lankan curry powder
12 pieces chicken, about 2 1/2 lbs, skinned and trimmed of fat. (Use legs and thighs — debone them if you must, but they’ll be tastier if cooked on the bone. Don’t use breast meat — it’s not nearly as tasty.) (Alternately, use 6 pieces of chicken, and three russet potatoes, peeled and cubed)
1/3 cup ketchup
1 heaping tsp salt
1/2 cup milk
1 TBL lime juice

1. In a large pot, sauté onions in oil on medium-high with mustard seed and cumin seed, cloves, cardamom pods, and cinnamon pieces, until onions are golden/translucent (not brown). Add chili powder and cook one minute. Immediately add curry powder, chicken, ketchup, and salt.

2.  Lower heat to medium. Cover and cook, stirring periodically, until chicken is cooked through and sauce is thick, about 20 minutes. Add water if necessary to avoid scorching. Add potatoes if using, and add milk, to thicken and mellow spice level; stir until well blended.  (Be careful not to cook on high at this point, as the milk will curdle.)

3.  Cook an additional 20 minutes, until potatoes are cooked through. Add lime juice; simmer a few additional minutes, stirring. Serve hot.