About two months ago, I was at Target, and they had all this serveware on clearance. Now that I have a food-related business, even though I really have enough serveware, it’s impressive how easily I can convince myself that South Asian-ish serveware is a legitimate business expense and I could really use a little more.
I do love it, though. The taupe ceramics mix beautifully with the pewter candlesticks, the white and off-white dishes I already had, the gold patterned linens and glassware.
The Target stuff has actually been sitting in my car for two months, because I bought it just before all this pandemic stuff went down, and then with all the book launch events cancelled, I suddenly had much less need for serveware. Honestly, it’s been depressing me every time I got in the car, a reminder of what happened to my poor cookbook.
But yesterday was Kevin’s and my 28th anniversary. We’d actually gotten into a small fight earlier in the day (pandemic-related, as we were arguing about differing opinions on risk behavior), and I had a moment of not wanting to celebrate at all.
But we talked (or rather, messaged each other because we were both busy with teaching work all afternoon for the last day of classes and set up a time to talk later), and I had faith that we’d sort it out. So I decided we should do something properly celebratory for our anniversary. The days are such a haze right now; whatever we can do to give them structure and mark the passage of time helps, I think.
I brought all bags in from the car and unwrapped them, which was actually very cheering, like getting presents from my former pre-pandemic self. And then I cleared all the sewing stuff off the dining table, which felt a little surreal, since it’s been living there for more than a month.
I set the table, and ordered a rather ridiculous amount of food from La Notte, a local Italian restaurant that I’d like to see stay in business. I ordered four appetizers, four entrees, and four desserts, which is at least two or three meals for us, but that’s fine — this weekend, I’m busy baking cookies for Mother’s Day treat boxes that ship out Tuesday, so it’s just as well if we aren’t trying to do much in the kitchen otherwise.
After ordering and arranging, I went back to teaching, trusting that Kev and I would sort things out before dinner, and then we’d all have a lovely meal. And the serveware will be used for Serendib Kitchen someday too. We’ll re-launch the cookbook, and lots of people will enjoy it. I have faith.
I didn’t sleep well last night (stayed up ’til 2 for no good reason), so I’m afraid I was in a crabby and exhausted mood most of the day, and at 4:30, I gave up and went to go lie down in bed for a while. Thankfully, Kevin was able to get Easter dinner on the table, and I managed to climb out of bed long enough to join them for it.
It’s hard for me to be cranky when eating roast lamb with a vinegary mint sauce (one of my favorite dishes, and somehow I only have it once or twice a year), fluffy roasted new potatoes, asparagus with lemon and garlic. Also when the kids have decided my spring-y napkin rings of faux Queen Anne’s lace are really hair accessories.
I went right back to bed afterwards, and eventually the kids and Kev joined me for the night’s Dr. Who episode, and by the end of it (the Shakespeare episode, which is really very fun), I was finally feeling like myself again.
Hopefully I sleep better tonight, but I made it through the day, so let’s count it a victory, shall we?
Anand had so much fun setting the table creatively, I had to share. 🙂
The leftover pasta looks a little dull on the plate next to the brightness of the steak and broccoli on the plate, but it was super-tasty, so we’ll allow it. Tasty > pretty. Kevin had made simple sautéed chicken thighs with bacon, served with buttered spinach noodles the night before. It was fine, but I had some leftovers to use up.
I ended up re-doing the dish after Saturday’s dinner — I put a little olive oil in the pan, added a bit of flour, sautéed for a minute, added cream, salt, pepper, to make a nice sauce. Then lemon juice (careful that the cream wasn’t too hot at that point, so it wouldn’t curdle), because I was craving a bit of tang. Added in his chicken with a bit of bacon, also the leftover sautéed onions and mushrooms from the fridge, also the leftover roasted brussels sprouts from the fridge, plus the cooked spinach fettucine.
Just stirred it all together for a minute to blend — didn’t want to make the pasta mushy — and then grated in about 1/2 a cup of fresh Parmesan, stirring. Mmm….refrigerator pasta. It’s the best, esp. if you’re the frugal sort who hates wasting food, and the easily-bored sort who doesn’t want to eat exactly the same thing as you’ve eaten for the last three days….
It came out so well that on Sunday, I had to stop and ask Anand if he *really* wanted thirds of the pasta, if he was actually still hungry, or if it was just tasty. He paused, and admitted that it was just tasty. I told him to slow down and drink a glass of water, see if he wasn’t actually full. He was, as it turned out.
I mean, not too full for dessert, but that’s a separate stomach anyway. 🙂 We just did Italian cookies (that a kind soul had brought to the garden club meet-up we’d hosted earlier that day) and Mommy’s failed chocolates. They were fine, just not quite as delicious as I’d hoped. Failed chocolate is often still tasty.
The finished Valentine’s Day pizza (I’m a little behind on posting! Too much cooking!) — one for Kev, one for me, very romantic. When we were living together in Philly, lo, these many ages ago, we used to go get saag at this one food cart, and it was delicious; I was thinking of that when putting this recipe together.
It was pretty filling, so we ended up splitting one, and having the other one for lunch the next day. (Which is actually what we usually did with the food cart saag too.)
Just made it on naan, which was great, though the TJ’s pizza dough would also work fine. Sri Lankan spinach curry for the base, curried lamb with tomatoes, homemade paneer. Mmm…
A friend asked me for a good spinach curry recipe, and I had to admit that I’ve never managed one I was happy with, so I tried working on it this weekend. I love saag / palak in restaurants, but my earlier attempts came out sort of watery and lacking in flavor; they just made me sad.
So I spent a while looking up recipes, and it seemed like most of the ones I found which might approximate restaurant saag used chopped spinach and went heavy on the cream. Which, okay, cream makes things delicious. But I was hoping to do a vegan version, and also one that was a little bit lighter and healthier, with some good fresh spinach brightness.
The key to that, I think, is the onions. And I know you’ve heard me go on about onions before, and their importance to Sri Lankan cuisine, but seriously, the amount of flavor you get out of a properly cooked onion is hard to beat.
For this, I chopped a mix of red onion and shallot — you could do either separately; I just happened to have both on hand. Yellow or white onions would also be fine, but the red onion and shallots gave a sweetness and delicacy that I thought worked particularly well with the fresh spinach. (And of course, they were awfully pretty contrasting with the curry leaves and green chili as I cooked!)
After that, it was a fairly standard base approach — sauté in oil or ghee with cumin seed and mustard seed (I call for traditional black mustard seed in my recipes, but brown is really fine; I’d avoid yellow, though, as it changes the flavor noticeably) until golden. Keeping heat on medium or even medium-low will reduce the risk of burning if you’ve stepped away to chop something; it’ll take a little longer, but the onions also caramelize beautifully this way, so if you can afford the time, I’d do that.
Add garlic after a bit (if you put it in with the onions initially, it’s susceptible to burning), curry leaves if you have them (there are no good substitutes, so just skip if not), and chopped green chili. (I didn’t have fresh ginger on hand, but if I did, I would have added some with the onions. Since I didn’t, I added a t. of ground ginger later in the dish, with the turmeric and salt.)
This basic approach is what I’d recommend for most of our vegetable curries, and indeed, for curries in general.
I’ve found over the past few years of talking to folks about their cooking habits that a lot of people skip the onions in a dish, or reduce the amount dramatically, not realizing that they’re the base of the flavor. That applies to Italian spaghetti sauce as much as to Sri Lankan curry.
I know chopping onions is a bit of a pain, but it can’t be beat for depth of flavor. There’s a reason why cooking school makes aspiring chefs start with chopping mounds and mounds and mounds of onions.
So once you have the seasoned onions cooked down nicely (see previous post), the next step is to add some more spices — turmeric and salt are really all you need at this point. And then you could use chopped frozen spinach, but if you have fresh baby spinach, it’s lovely — I dumped two bags in here.
You basically can’t stir them at this point without lots of spinach falling out of your pan (I tried), but if you’re just patient and let it be, within a few minutes the spinach will have reduced enough to stir into the onions for a few more minutes.
You could stop the recipe at this point if you’re aiming for super-healthy low-calorie greens, and it would be tasty! But I definitely wanted a sauce, and anyway, coconut makes things better. So I added 1 cup (half a can) of coconut milk and stirred that in too.
You’re almost done at this point — the last step, always, is to check the seasonings. I’ve been surprised to learn, over the last few years of working on the cookbook, how many people are intimidated by phrases like ‘salt to taste.’
As a very rough estimate, most ‘feed 4-6 people’ dishes I use call for a teaspoon of salt for the pot, so if you’re really not sure, I’d go with something like that.
(Better to undersalt than over, so if you’re not sure, start with 1/2 a teaspoon — you can always add more, but you can’t take salt out of the curry!
If you DO oversalt, that’s tricky to fix — if it’s a dish where you can add potatoes, I’d do that (you can cut them up and cook them in the microwave separately, or boil them, so that you’re adding cooked potatoes to the dish, rather than raw potatoes which will make the whole dish cook for an extra 20-30 minutes, dulling the overall flavors.
Alternately, make a second batch of the dish, without salt. Combine them, so the salt flavors the whole thing more evenly. And if you have too much for your needs, then freeze some. That’s a lot of work, though, and requires you to have enough ingredients on hand to do this. Or you can freeze the over-salted batch to fix on another day, labelling appropriately. Yes, I’ve done this. Have I mentioned that I *hate* wasting food?)
I always take a little bit of sauce at the end, dab it on the back of my left hand, and lick it up to taste. Sometimes it’s perfect; sometimes it wants a little more salt. For this one, I added another 1/2 t. of salt, and then a T of fresh-squeezed lime juice. (Bottled is fine if you don’t have fresh on hand.)
Be a little careful adding lemon or lime if you’re using cream instead of coconut milk — when acid hits hot dairy, it tends to curdle. You’ll make cheese, which is another post altogether. So stir in the cream or coconut milk, let it cook and blend with the other ingredients for a few minutes, make sure your heat is at medium and not boiling over, and THEN add the lime juice.
The result will be glorious. 🙂 Enjoy with rice and curry, or as we did this weekend, spread on naan and toasted as delicious flatbread / pizza.
Will post actual recipe in next post, with measurements. 🙂
Sri Lankan Spinach Curry
(30 minutes, serves 4; gluten-free, vegan)
(This is the actual recipe — see previous two posts for Cook’s Illustrated-style explication of recipe development + paean to onions.)
2 medium onions (preferably red), chopped fine
2 T oil or ghee
1 t. black mustard seed
1 t. cumin seed
1 T ginger, chopped
1 dozen curry leaves
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 t. salt
1/2 t. turmeric
22 ounces baby spinach (2 bags)
1 c. coconut milk
1 T lime juice
1. Sauté onions in oil or ghee over medium heat. Add mustard seed, cumin seed, ginger, and curry leaves.
2. After a few minutes, add chopped garlic, salt, and turmeric, and continue cooking until golden-translucent, stirring as needed, about 15 minutes total.
3. Add spinach to pan (in two batches if necessary, depending on size of pan), let cook down for a few minutes. When reduced, stir into onions and cook for a few more minutes.
4. Add coconut milk and stir; add lime juice and stir. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed. Serve hot with rice or roti.
I could photograph this spinach curry ALL DAY. 🙂
(And hey, ten years in, my zinc island countertop really has weathered and patinated the way I’d hoped. Makes me so happy. (It’s not heat-proof, though, so use with care.))
(Sri Lankan spinach curry recipe in previous post.)
Sunday dinner this week we kept simple — we had some leftover pasta from the day before, so we just added steak and broccoli. About 20-25 minutes of cooking time, and the kids (mostly Kavi) did almost all of it, with instruction / supervision.
First we got the water boiling for the broccoli, which we were going to boil this time. (Sometimes we steam it, sometimes we roast it. Broccoli happens a lot around here, as it’s the only green vegetable both kids will reliably eat.) The pot was heavy enough that Kavi had a little trouble moving it over — got to get that girl doing more household and yard work, build up some arm muscles! She plays soccer, but that is not helping her arms any. 🙂
Kavi really loves steak, so she was pretty excited to learn how easy it was to make for herself. Rinse, pat dry with paper towels, season with salt and pepper (the kids love using the grinders), add a bit of oil. Get the grill pan really hot (toss some water on to make sure it’s sizzling, which is always fun). Put steak on pan and set timer for 3-4 minutes (depending on how thick your steak is; we were doing NY strip, so went with 4).
Check on the water for the broccoli — boiling yet? Almost. We’d already cut it up a few days before (leftover for serving with dip at a party), so that bit was taken care of. We put some dishes away, clearing the dishwasher for later use.
Okay, water at a full rolling boil, plenty of bubbles, in goes the broccoli, careful not to splash yourself with boiling water.
There goes the timer for the steaks — flip them! Don’t mess with them otherwise! Set another timer for 3 minutes. I showed Kavi how you can press a finger into the pad at the base of your thumb to remind yourself of the right level of squishiness for steak doneness — medium rare is what we all like. We pressed a finger in the steak to test — still too soft. Empty some more dishes from the dishwasher.
We were a little tight on time here, because broccoli and steak were finishing at about the same time — the broccoli got *slightly* overcooked as a result. Not enough to be mushy though, which was good, because the kids won’t eat it then! It’s hard to manage the timings perfectly when you’re also trying to teach two kids.
Timer goes off, steak on the cutting board, add a bit more salt and pepper, leave it to rest. (Important — if you cut it now, the juices will just flow out; messy, and less tasty steak resulting).
Drain the broccoli. This bit, I did for them, because the pot was borderline too heavy for Kavi to lift. I told her she could just take them out with a spatula instead; if I’d had one nearby, I would’ve had her do that, but I didn’t — poor planning on my part! Next time. I also warned them to be careful with the steam when pouring out the broccoli into the colander — you can burn your face or hands pretty easily. No good.
Broccoli back in the pot, and now Anand and Kevin have finished the dishwasher, heated up the leftover pasta, and are off setting the table and lighting the candles while we finish up. Kavi adds several pats of butter to the broccoli and gently stirs; we could’ve added some salt too, but with salted butter, didn’t feel we needed it. The sweetness of the broccoli was coming through nicely.
Then slicing the steak, making it pretty with a few of Daddy’s favorite kumato tomatoes, and off to eat. 🙂
It was very satisfying teaching her how to do this at age 12. I basically didn’t learn to cook ’til college; I feel like they’re getting a big advantange in life here! Happy parenting.
Our Sunday dinner was a little harried this week, because I was still sick on Sunday, so we pushed it to Monday since there wasn’t school, and then I forgot that Kavi had an orthodontist appointment, plus I was finally making good progress on my revision after much procrastination, and Kavi was super-tired, so we ended up pulling back on the planned menu, skipping the roti and the roasted broccoli / cauliflower I had planned, and just having Kevin and Anand cook steamed broccoli to go with ginger-garlic chicken.
But Anand prepped broccoli for the first time, and also cut up chicken for the first time, and even seasoned the ginger-garlic chicken too. And we sat down and lit a few candles and ate together for at least 15 minutes, and even played a game of Geography over dinner, and we had the mango pudding that Kavi and I made on Saturday, so I’m going to call it success.
At the commencement welcome, one of the conference chairs of SALA made a joke about how we’re going to talk well and eat well. I’m not sure I’m talking all that well (still tired and a little out of it!), but my gosh, they do feed us well here.
Breakfast & lunch for two days are included in your registration, along with a very hearty closing reception that they said could easily be your dinner that night; coffee and tea service is also laid out throughout, which has been very handy for me, as I duck out of my room, grab some hot coffee, and duck back in to work a little more.
But just look at what they’ve served us so far! (I forgot to take photos of the avocado tartine and the fig tartine at breakfast, but they were very pretty.) One slight tweak I’d suggest for the hotel — I love that they used chicken thighs instead of breast, in terms of flavor, but personally, I wouldn’t have served it on the bone for a buffet like this. Too difficult to eat while sitting on low couches, managing drinks, etc. Nothing that requires knives!
I think my favorite, flavor-wise, was the combination of the curried salmon w/ the roasted sweet potatoes. Mmmm… I liked it so much I decided to skip dessert and go back for seconds of that instead. The roasted potatoes were also perfectly done, and delish.
Funny travel / eating moment. So yesterday, I was VERY tired, and I really just wanted some spicy Asian comfort food for dinner. Luckily, there was a Vietnamese restaurant with good reviews (Long Provincial) half a block away from my hotel. So I staggered in there, made it to a table, and ordered a dish I knew I liked, Cá Kho Tộ, which is caramelized and braised catfish.
The waiter asked if I wanted rice with that, which I mean, what kind of question is that? Does anyone actually eat this intensely flavored dish — sweet and salty and spicy — without rice? Maybe white people do? Surely Vietnamese people don’t? I don’t really know, but I was startled.
Anyway, I said yes, and he went away and came back eventually (service was a little slow; I think they were understaffed). I’d offer photos of the food at the restaurant, but they seated me in an area that was so moody and dark that I could barely see my food, much less photograph it.
Luckily, the book I had brought to read was on my Kindle; otherwise, I would’ve asked to be moved to the brightly-lit section. (Re-reading Civil Campaign, because when I’m that tired, all I want is comfort reading, and Miles being an ass and everyone he knows calling him on it is about as comforting as it gets. I love Miles, I identify intensely with Miles, but Miles is also often a very cogent warning as to how I might go horribly astray…anyway. Back to our story.)
So he brings me this beautiful big clay pot full of fish and intense sauce, and this teeny tiny bowl of rice. Hm. I started eating, but usually I don’t eat very much at any given meal (I eat many many small meals), so I only finished about a third of the fish and all of the rice.
You really needed the rice! I honestly don’t know that I could’ve borne to eat the fish & sauce otherwise, because the flavors would’ve been unpleasantly intense. But balancing each bite of delicate fish and savory sauce with an appropriate amount of rice, it was just perfect.
(Not the best Cá Kho Tộ I’ve had, and $22 was rather a lot for catfish, but eh, it’s downtown Seattle, and as I said, half a block from my hotel. I’m not complaining about the price (well done gouging the tourists, Asian peeps, say I!), and the dish itself was fine. I’d eat there again! And besides, it makes three meals for me, so it all works out. Only because of the rice, though, so onwards…)
Here’s the funniest bit, at least to me. When I’d finished, I asked him for a container to pack it up, but also, if I could have some more rice. And I swear, he almost laughed when he said yes. I can’t be sure. But when he brought back the container for the fish, he also brought back rice — TWICE AS MUCH as he’d originally served me. And he didn’t charge me for it either.
So, I dunno, because I’m not an expert in Vietnamese food, and I honestly don’t know how this dish is typically eaten in Vietnam. But I wonder if the first serving of rice was geared for white tourists, and the takeaway much larger portion was because he’d realized that I knew how to eat the dish properly…? Hmm…
Regardless, I ate half of my leftovers for first breakfast, and they were delicious. 🙂
Kavi forbid cooking pictures yesterday, because her hair was a mess (I may have made her pull it back in the kitchen with a carabiner clip because that’s all that was handy), but the first Sunday night dinner went reasonably well.
Anand got to pick, so we went with lasagne, his favorite. Kavi browned the sausage and ground beef (maybe her first time cooking meat?), cooked down the tomatoes into sauce, and seasoned both meats and sauce with salt, pepper, Italian herbs, onion powder. Then both of them layered the sauce / noodles / meat / ricotta / mozzarella in the pan a few times.
Kevin and I mostly just talked them through the recipe (such as it is), and offered some tips, like tilting the pan to drain the excess fat from the meat and using paper towels to sop that oil up and toss it away. Covered the lasagne with foil (talking about why you’d want to use foil and not, say, plastic wrap!), stuck it in the oven at 375 for an hour. Later, removed foil, let lasagne cook an additional 15 minutes (browning the top, letting the liquid cook off), then grown-ups pulled the hot, heavy pan out of the oven and let it cool for 15 minutes on the counter while the kids set the table, before we all sat down to eat.
Anand was pretty distractible, and kept running off to watch YouTube when he didn’t have an active task, but he did come and do everything he was asked to, and I think he had fun layering the ingredients in the baking dish. He was pretty stressed yesterday about vacation break ending and school starting again today, so we were inclined to let him self-soothe with electronics as needed. We’re going to try to wean everyone off electronics for the cooking Sunday dinner time, but it’ll be a process, I think. (I had to pause my online game with Jed to later eat, and it took some willpower!)
We really should’ve made a salad, garlic bread, and dessert — there was plenty of time while the lasagne was cooking, but Kavi had a book to finish reading for school, and as I said, I had a game going, so we all dispersed instead. Luckily, there was some leftover broccoli from lunch, and Kev cut up a bell pepper, so that counted as sufficient veg. to accompany.
And then we actually:
– set the table (kids)
– got everyone water (kids)
– washed hands before dinner (everyone)
– sat down and talked together while eating (everyone)
– used utensils to eat the lasagne (everyone, even Anand, which is new for him — he is not a utensil fan, but as we said, eventually he might be asked to eat with the president, who won’t be Trump, and then he’ll need to use utensils. Or if not the president, then his grandmother (Kev’s mom), who is also big on utensils
– cleared up afterwards (mostly Kev)
There’s plenty of lasagne left for dinner tonight, and today’s lunch for the grown-ups at work, so that’s also a nice way of easing into the work week. We’ll try to plan on making enough at Sunday night dinner to cover Monday, at least.
There was an extended discussion of whether Anand was allowed to repeat phrases because he thought it was funny. Kavi first came up with the rule that he couldn’t say specific phrases, but he just kept changing the phrases (there was a lot of ‘but why?’ for example). Finally she hit on: “No deliberately annoying people at the dinner table,” and Anand laughed. While he didn’t explicitly concede the point, he did stop the repeating, which I think we all took as a win. 🙂
It was really nice. They’re now old enough that we can have interesting conversations; I honestly didn’t have the patience for doing this with little ones, and I salute those of you who do! I know many families do dinner together every night, and we’ve never done that — we’ve always just wandered off to eat with our books and shows separately. But at least once a week, sitting together, being off electronics for a few hours, and teaching the kids some basic dinner table etiquette seems useful.
It’s a piece of the parenting project that we’ve somewhat neglected, but teaching them how to get along in community and not deliberately annoy people just because you think it’s funny seems worth the expenditure of a little effort and energy. Even if it means I have to delay the last few moves in my game. (Jed was stomping me anyway!)
Pictured: Anand demonstrating what he considers proper use of a fork…