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.

Slow-Cooked Curried Beef, Chickpea, and Spinach

(2-3 hours, serves 8)

I’ve been reading a lot about Mediterranean cooking recently, and wondering if I could adapt some of our Sri Lankan flavors to that style of cooking.  This dish started with Beef Smoore,  a dish of Dutch / Sri Lankan origin, one of those recipes where you just dump everything in a pot and simmer it for hours. It’s heavily spiced, because if you use a more typical amount of spicing, the flavors tend to get quite mild after hours of cooking, and you end up with a result closer to beef stew than curry. The classic Smoore recipe is rich and delectable; great party food for a holiday or special occasion.
 
But tonight I revisited the recipe, aiming for something my family might eat more often.  I reduced the amount of beef — instead of 3 lbs. of beef roast, I used just one pound of beef chuck and one piece of beef shank. I added chickpeas and spinach, bringing fiber and more nutrients to the dish, and skipped the coconut milk altogether.  This version is both more heart-healthy and budget-friendly, but without compromising flavor at all — the meatiness of the shank and its marrow pairs richly with the vinegar and tamarind.

The end result is a tangy stew (or soup, if you prefer), delicious with a little rice or bread.  I’m continuing my efforts to accommodate my daughter to Sri Lankan flavors, so this uses half the chili powder I would normally put in for myself.  She loved it, and I like it just fine like this, but for a more Sri Lankan version, do double the chili powder!

1 T ghee or oil
1 lb. beef chuck, cubed
1 beef shank
1 c. canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 c. chopped frozen spinach
1/2 cup vinegar
1 T tamarind paste, dissolved in 3 c. water
1/4 c. ketchup
2 T Worcestershire sauce
2 medium onions, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 T finely chopped fresh ginger
1 stick cinnamon
2 stalks curry leaves
1 stalk lemongrass, chopped
3 T Sri Lankan curry powder
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
2 tsp salt

1.  Heat the oil or ghee on high in a large, heavy pot, and sear the beef, stirring, until browned on all sides, which adds great depth of flavor to the sauce.

2.  Keeping heat on high, add remaining ingredients to the pan and stir to combine, scraping up any browned meat on the bottom of the pan.  Bring to a boil, cover the pot, and simmer gently until meat is tender, approximately 2-3 hours.

3.  Remove lid and stir; if the gravy is too thin for your desire, reduce it by boiling rapidly uncovered.  Serve hot, with rice or bread.

Lava

I was not a very good cook in college. I’d called my mother, somewhat desperate after months of dorm cafeteria food, and she taught me how to make her beef and potato curry over the phone. I made it regularly, sometimes eating with bread, sometimes with rice. I thought I had it down.

Then one day, I set a pot of rice going on the stove. Brought it to a boil, turned it down to a simmer. And then I just…wandered off. I must have gotten caught up in some interesting conversation; I’d like to think that I was arguing about Wittgenstein, because that makes what actually happened sound slightly less ridiculous.

No, it doesn’t.

Some endless time later, the fire alarm went off. The entire dorm, all twelve floors, were evacuated, and I went with them, carrying a horrible pit of certainty in my stomach. About six hundred and fifty students stood outside in the cold, until the fire department finally let us back in. That’s when I discovered what had happened to my rice — our suite was full of smoke, and my rice had cooked so long and so dry that it had turned into something that looked a lot like lava. I didn’t know rice could do that.

Jump forward twenty-five years. Last night, on New Year’s Eve, I made stock. I even wrote a nice, long metaphorical post about it, cooking the bones of the old year to bring in the new. Etc. and so on. I’m a good cook these days, a very good cook, I even have a cookbook, and am hoping to publish a second soon.  I’d come a long way from the girl who burned rice.

So you can imagine how I felt when I turned my stock into chicken soup today, with a house full of guests for New Year’s, and went to taste the soup, and realized that it just smelled — wrong. Off. Possibly the sort of thing that would give my guests food poisoning. They were good friends and it was a casual potluck gathering, thankfully, but still, it was embarrassing. I’d promised them soup, but I couldn’t possibly serve it to them. We pulled some frozen pierogies out and sautéed them, and later, after they’d all left, I had Kevin pour the failed soup down the sink. I couldn’t bear to do it myself.

I still don’t really know what went wrong; I suspect the bones I used for the stock had just sat in the freezer too long. Sometimes, even after what ought to be plenty of practice, you just get it wrong. It seemed like a good idea when you started, but somewhere along the way, that project turned down a dark path.

For New Year’s Day, I wanted to start the year out right. Doing a little bit of everything I hoped for in the new year — cooking and gardening, writing and exercise. Spending time with friends and family. Making art.

I pulled out all my UFOs — for those of you who don’t knit or crochet, that’s what we call ‘unfinished objects.’ I can’t stand to have too many of them; it’s like being in the middle of reading (or writing) too many books. I start to get confused and stressed out — 3 to 4 is about my limit. There were four this time, some of which had been languishing for months. I made myself a promise — I would work a row on each one, and if it wasn’t fun, if it wasn’t right, I would give up on the project and let it go.

I am terrible at letting things go. Ideas, projects, people. I am acquisitive; I like to accrete. I am basically a crow in human form — if I see a shiny pretty, I want it. But time is limited, space and energy ditto. Sometimes, these things, they’re just weighing you down.

Three projects survived the winnowing — I crocheted another row on the Christmas afghan, and a flower for my daughter’s spring scarf. I knit a row of the colorwork armwarmer I had designed — my first such design. While I was cursing the artistic impulse that had led me to work with three colors instead of two — exponentially harder! — I still felt delight as I watched the pattern emerge from the twisting strands. It was worth the time I spent detangling.

And the last project? It gave me no joy when I picked it up; it looked wrong, and sad. Recycled sari fabric, turned into yarn, that I had tried in one project after another, but none of them seemed right for it. I ripped it back — we call it frogging when you do that with crochet, because you’re going rip it, rip it, rip it — yes, textile folks are hilarious. I made it into a beautiful ball of potential again, and then I gave that ball away to a friend, who would make better use of it than I could. I felt lighter for letting it go.

This is the time of year when so many people are making resolutions, reassessing their lives, trying to do more, be better versions of themselves. I think that must have been happening since the dawn of humanity. Deep in the heart of winter, in the cave, one caveman turned to another and said, “This year, I’m going to master that fire thing. You’ll see.”

Maybe it’s also the time to be gentle with ourselves. To look at everything we’ve taken on, to see that some things just didn’t work out. We made mistakes, weren’t paying attention, made the wrong choices from the beginning. Time to reassess, let those projects go. Maybe there’s a little too much on that plate.

Pour the failed soup down the sink. It’ll be okay.

If we still want soup tomorrow, we can make more.

Hawaii: Loco Moco Benedict

A little travel food blogging while I’m on vacation and not cooking!

Yesterday’s breakfast at Tango Cafe, which is a Swedish place recommended by a local. I bypassed all the Swedish fare and went for a loco moco benedict — a cross between a traditional Hawaiian loco moco and eggs benedict. A big stack of fried rice with plenty of meat in it, then braised beef on top, then a poached egg and hollandaise sauce. Two of them! It was delicious, but a *lot* of rich food — I ate just one of the pair of them, and then rolled out the door. (Maybe it was unwise asking the probably 20-year-old young Hawaiian man serving us what he liked on the menu — I’m guessing he consumes twice as many calories in a day as I can manage. 🙂 )

I didn’t know anything about Hawaiian food when I arrived here, so Jed kindly forwarded me a nice Wikipedia page with fascinating info — it reminds me of Sri Lankan food in many ways, with the different European influences. But also wildly different:
 
“The cuisine of Hawaii incorporates five distinct styles of food reflecting the diverse food history of settlement and immigration in the Hawaiian Islands.[a] In the pre-contact period of Ancient Hawaii (300 AD–1778), Polynesian voyagers brought plants and animals to the Islands. As Native Hawaiians settled the area, they fished, raised taro for poi, planted coconuts, sugarcane, sweet potatoes and yams, and cooked meat and fish in earth ovens. After first contact in 1778, European and American cuisine arrived along with missionaries and whalers, who introduced their own foods and built large sugarcane plantations. Christian missionaries brought New England cuisine[1] while whalers introduced salted fish which eventually transformed into the side dish lomilomi salmon.
 
As pineapple and sugarcane plantations grew, so did the demand for labor, bringing many immigrant groups to the Islands between 1850 and 1930. Immigrant workers from China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Portugal arrived in Hawaii, introducing their new foods and influencing the region. The introduction of new ethnic foods, such as Chinese char siu bao (manapua), Portuguese sweet bread and malasadas, and the Japanese bento, combined with the existing indigenous, European, and American foods in the plantation working environments and in the local communities. This blend of cuisines formed a “local food” style unique to Hawaii, resulting in plantation foods like the plate lunch, snacks like Spam musubi, and dishes like the loco moco.”
 
And if you follow the link on the last: “Loco moco is a meal in the contemporary cuisine of Hawaii. There are many variations, but the traditional loco moco consists of white rice, topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and brown gravy. “
 

Seeni Sambol Appetizer Experiment #3: Pastry Cups

I knew I wanted more richness for my appetizer, and that suggested a nice, buttery pastry. So I asked Kevin to make up a batch of Sri Lankan patty pastry dough (he’s my bread guy), rolled it out fairly thinly, cut it small, and put the rounds into my mini muffin pan.

 

I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to just fill and bake, or blind bake a cup and then fill it, so I tried both. I forgot to dock the pie cups, so about half my blind-baked pastry cups puffed up to an unusable level. But some of them came out perfectly, so I was able to try both options.

 

I’m a little torn there, honestly, because I think it tastes just slightly better when you cook the seeni sambol in with the pastry — but the oil does discolor the pastry, so it doesn’t look quite as neat and party-ready. I think I would blind-bake and fill just before the party, if I were going to do these.

They’re quite good, even without the egg, and topped with hard-boiled egg, they’re delicious. This one was almost perfectly what I wanted it to be — but could it be just a little bit better? Yes, yes it could. Let’s give this an A- for now, and look to the next post for the winner…

Ambitions

I probably should’ve taken it easier today, eaten leftovers instead of trying to cook, but I had told Kevin that I’d make steak and kale salad while he had a long day on campus, and I wanted to have that for him. So even though I had done computer work all day (catching up on overdue things from surgery time, getting the new website up and running), and was feeling exhausted, I powered through and made the food (leaving the kitchen something of a disaster).

It’s all tasty, but I think both Kev and I would agree that leftovers would have been the wiser choice. Sometimes I get an idea in my head, and I have a really hard time scaling it down to something more practical, and then I fall down.

We’re trying to get the whole family to eat a little healthier, as we all have something of a genetic tendency to plumpness (and also like sitting around way too much of the time with our devices, which is another thing to work on, but that’s another problem…) But the kids are still very dubious of much of our food, esp. anything spicy. If we’re cooking two separate meals, pizza and pasta for the kids are so easy, but they really could use a more varied diet (with more appreciation of vegetables). It’s going to be a bit of a challenge, making the time. Important, though. Going to have to strategize.

My secret wish is to make time to start cooking twice a week with Kavya in a very focused way — ideally, one Sri Lankan recipe / week, which she may or may not like, and one American recipe that she is almost certain to like. The very ambitious version of this would have me recording video and audio and then using some of it for either podcast or little website videos.

But that may be more than anyone has energy for, esp. given how time-consuming editing is — if I just cook with her, that’s the important part. A resolution for next New Year? We’ll see. Maybe the new website will help.