Wednesday, April 30, 2008

My Bombay Kitchen: Three more days!

I continue to stumble with the food styling. And it may be worse when I make an effort, as I did just now with a my late grandmother's china saucer and a piece of Cardamom shortbread. That is a tragic picture, like a photograph an old B&B proprietress might take to advertise her property, and just looking at it you know exactly what kind place it is, crammed with mahogany Victorian reproductions, Gone with the Wind plates and Hummel figurines. The bedrooms smell like lavender sachets and you will never stay there because she only serves vanilla-hazelnut coffee and just won't stop talking. On and on she rattles. Kind of like the Tipsy Baker.

I woke up this morning still full from dinner last night. Disturbing. I had so much left over from previous nights, that I heated it all up, and added two fresh dishes: Eggplant stew and Cucumber raita.

All day, dreading the eggplant stew. Gray and soggy eggplant stew. Stew. Ew. The words alone are disconcerting, the images they call up, vile. I should have been thinking of it as the Parsis do: Buriyani. Much better, no?

The Buriyani was, in fact, delectable, but it was the raita that blew my mind. In her uncharacteristically brief headnote Niloufer Ichaporia King writes: "Cucumber raita needs no introduction. Is there anyone who doesn't love it?"

Well, yes, I thought sourly, there's me. But it is the traditional accompaniment to Buriyani, so I went forward with what is, essentially, cucumber grated into a bowl of yogurt. I've made raita several times before and it was acidic and thin. I think what I did right this time was buy Greek yogurt, which is rich and thick, more like sour cream.

This may be the point at which to introduce my theory of the characters of foods. I had previously pegged cucumber raita as a skinny prig -- a wispy, unattractive ascetic with a pale comb-over whom no one really wants to sit beside. But this raita was a lovely, sweet woman, voluptuous and kind and an excellent listener.

That said, there is still one person who does not love raita. Or, for that matter, anything else I put on the table last night.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

My Bombay Kitchen: Rhubarb Chutney

Okay, so my food styling needs some work. That's fiery rhubarb chutney boiling on the stove. Did you know the ancient Persians believed the first man and woman sprang from a rhubarb stalk? Neither did I.

We are down to the last four nights of Parsi fare here at Casa Tipsy Baker. I think we are all ready for a change, though I can't speak highly enough of My Bombay Kitchen, a volume I will bring with me when it's time to hobble off to the retirement home. Personal, intelligent, idiosyncratic, meticulously organized, lavishly detailed. Every recipe has worked beautifully. In this blog I have shrugged off some of the final results, but in fact all of Niloufer Ichaporia King's dishes have been solidly delicious, the kind of food I heat up for lunch day after day.

And, to be fair, King isn't trying to wow us with these recipes. She's trying to preserve the cuisine of her culture and of her childhood -- what her mother cooked, what her Parsi friends cooked, and the food she prepares as a San Francisco "magpie." My Bombay Kitchen is a scrapbook, a memoir, an anthropological treatise, a treasure.

Monday, April 28, 2008

My Bombay Kitchen: Poison of Delight

In Parsi legend, wine is called "poison of delight."

Justine and I have a rule, which is that when you go to someone's house for dinner you always bring two bottles of poison of delight. One bottle is never enough, two is festive and generous.

Yesterday afternoon, I turned up at Justine's house with zero bottles. Sometimes within a family you forget, or neglect, your most basic rules of etiquette. But shouldn't one treat the people closest with the most regard? Why don't we?

It was probably the excitement of pulling together my contributions to the family pot luck: the spice rub for grilled seafood masala, and the cardamom creme caramel. (Both from Niloufer Ichaporia King's Bombay Kitchen, of course.) Justine supplied margaritas, poison of delight, rice pilaf, and salad.

Fish. Wouldn't one always secretly rather have a hot dog? That is Justine's contention. Michael had purchased the pearliest white halibut, the most gorgeous scallops and shrimp, and it was all grilled to perfection.

But how good can fish ever be, even when rubbed with Parsi-inspired masala? Pallid, a little watery, flabby -- or bone dry. Most of us agreed with Justine. Or at least I think we did; some of us were poisoned with delight. Grandpa John, down from Petaluma, may have spoken up for salmon, which apparently none of us will be eating any time soon. Grandpa John also spoke up for whales.

The children were definitely pro-hot dog.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

My Bombay Kitchen: My, I've been busy

It is a strange moment to be starting a food blog.

Last night, I made Niloufer Ichaporia King's deep-fried Fish balls (this is her title for the dish; I'd rename them "fritters" asap) plus Everyday dal (four stars!) and an incendiary, minty Cabbage and lime salad. Loved the combination of refreshing cabbage, rich dal, and crusty little fritters. Love Parsi food generally. Love My Bombay Kitchen specifically. Love, love, love!

Don't love Whole Foods, where I have been spending all my money lately. I know Michael Pollan says we should pay more for our groceries if we want to be healthy, noble, right-thinking human beings but maybe . . . maybe I don't?

It just galls me to shell out $4.72 for a little bag of limes, even if they are organic.

The only thing I miss about living in San Francisco are the Chinese markets, especially the Sunset Super, where, no matter how much bok choy and fermented tofu I loaded into the shopping cart, the total at checkout never added up to more than $25. It was both mystery and miracle.

Of course, none of the food was organic or heirloom or seasonal or local, and some of it probably came from a Chengdu strychnine factory. But I loved the weird pig parts, the aisles upon aisles of soybean-based condiments, the fifty kinds of rice noodles, rock sugars, and won ton wrappers. The doomed live fish, the unsettling geoduck clams, the pink spot prawns dancing around in the tank.

The world seems very big and strange and exciting in a Chinese market.

At Whole Foods, the world seems very tiny and white and nervous.

Back to last night's dinner. Dessert was Tangerine water ice and Crisp cashew wafers. After awkwardly posing for a photograph with my exquisite creation, Isabel (above) and Juliet politely declined to try any, then disappeared. Odd. These ladies usually love a dessert.

I went upstairs, where they were watching Men in Black. They had filled this big cereal bowl with Coke Bottles, Junior Mints, Gummi Bears and Reese's Pieces, the most revolting mix of candies I have ever encountered, and they were blindly and lustily scooping it into their mouths.

Let's review: While I was searching my soul and buying fancy organic limes, they were at Walgreens pooling their resources and planning a party.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Soulful vs. Smart Ass

Another motivation for this blog was to find a voice with which to write about food and cookbooks, subjects about which I am actually very thoughtful and earnest. But I worry that I am becoming a SMART ASS instead, going for the cheap booze joke over trenchant analysis.

Why do I do this, and what is the solution?

1. The easiest way to avoid boring readers to death is to keep things short and funny.

2. Of course, there are other ways -- like writing long, soulful, and brilliant.
3. But I don't have time.

4. Or maybe I do have time, but am terrified I might prove incapable of writing long, soulful, and brilliant.

5. That is a depressing thought, and we're getting closer to the truth.

6. Of course, I'm also lazy.

7. Another "joke" to keep from appearing to take myself, and this project, seriously.

8. Perhaps being a SMART ASS isn't even a problem. I've been writing this blog for what, six days, and maybe I should just let it develop organically?

9. What readers?

10. It is time to go to spin class.

Friday, April 25, 2008

My Bombay Kitchen: The Spice is Right

Just some of the components of Dhana Jiru, the spice mix from Zoroastrian Hell.

My ostensibly low ambition for last night was to whip up Niloufer Ichaporia King's Split chickpea stew, which looked easy and vegetarian and virtuous. 

But she calls for two elaborate spice mixes: Sambhar Masala, which includes eleven individual spices, and Dhana Jiru, which calls for seventeen, among them a "strand" of mace and a cup of coriander seeds. Toasted.

I mixed myself a drink.

Three hours, two drinks, and 10,000 Ajwain cashews later, we wearily sat down to dinner. I had also made Puris (impressive!) and Braised greens (bitter!)

The chickpeas? I was hoping that all my toasting and grinding and sifting and sneezing might yield a revelatory chickpea. These were good, but no. I'm not sure revelation can ever be found in a chickpea. And I say this as one of the chickpea's biggest fans.

But here's my real problem: King's proportions for these spice mixes are so generous that even cutting the recipes in fourths, I have enough Dhana Jiru and Sambhar Masala to tide over a tubby Parsi family of seventeen for a decade. 

My Bombay Kitchen: That's No Way to Treat a Cookbook

No, it's really not.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Calcutta Kitchen

I was feeling a little sad that my days cooking from Niloufer Ichaporia King's Bombay Kitchen are drawing to a close. Then, earlier this afternoon, The Calcutta Kitchen came in the mail. Okay, it didn't just magically arrive; I ordered it a few weeks ago. And it is mind-blowingly gorgeous, packed with big, vibrant photographs of crazy Calcutta streetlife, festivals, and foods -- kebabs, fried puffed breads, puddings. Look at the colors on that baby! Owen and I spent fifteen minutes paging through it on the front doorstep (we didn't even make it into the house) and he got this glassy, hungry look in his eye. Gazing at a picture of a dumpling, he said, "I just want to reach in and pull it out and pop it in my mouth."

Okay, I guess the food porn issue is real. But I swear it's not the whole story. . .

My Bombay Kitchen: How many calories in a cashew?

If I could choose any job on the planet, I think it might be "independent scholar." Except, according to the jacket bio on My Bombay Kitchen, Niloufer Ichaporia King has already taken that job. Shoot!

Oh, but wait. . . .phew. Apparently, there are still openings for independent scholars and I guess the fact that I am writing this blog suggests I've already landed one of those plum positions.

I realize that I have given short shrift to King's voice -- sly, mellow, witty, intimate -- which is one of the chief pleasures of her book. Every recipe has a headnote that puts it in context, and makes you want to start grinding cumin seeds. She's kind of funny, too: "There's no argument that a billowy, well-fried, well-drained papad is a delicious thing to eat, but it's impossible to stop with one. If you don't want to be like the universe, forever expanding, a toasted papad is equally delicious."

Checka and Stella came over last night and I managed to (sort of) relax into the multigenerational chaos by imbibing one of King's "sneaky" Pomegranate cocktails -- a lot of bottled juice shaken with a drop of white rum. Sadly, I prefer an unsneaky cocktail that clobbers you from the first sip. Like, say, a manhattan. Up.
As an appetizer snack (why do I hate the word nosh? Also awful: nibble) I made my second favorite recipe from this book so far: Ajwain cashews. The cashews are lightly roasted ("Coppertone tan is too brown") then tossed with ghee, salt, and Ajwain seeds. 

Unfortunately, after eating approximately 10,000 cashews, the meal that followed was anticlimax: Duck legs braised with little onions and Chopped watercress salad with ginger vinaigrette. Solid recipes for very pleasant dishes that I will probably never make again.

I would be raving about the crumbly, buttery, cardamom-flavored Giant cookie (pictured above) if I hadn't recently eaten King's Cardamom cake, which remains the Parsi dessert to beat. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

My Bombay Kitchen: Parsiburgers and Pineau

A few days ago I bought a $30 bottle of Pineau des Charentes to make a "jelly" described thusly in My Bombay Kitchen: "Here's a twist on an old Parsi favorite of jellied port or sherry with stewed prunes. Pineau des Charentes is a little extravagant, but you can serve only a little bit of it with a compote of fresh fruit. It's like having your dessert wine and fruit all at once."
Pineau des Charentes. PINEAU DES CHARENTES!!!! I never knew what I was missing these forty-two years. I may never get around to the jelly (and will never get around to the compote), but have made the acquaintance of PINEAU DES CHARENTES!!!!
Holy mackerel, this is some fine alcohol. Reminiscent of Lillet but richer, more syrupy, more ridiculously delicious, more likely to give me a quiet, nagging hangover tomorrow but so heavenly I shall ignore the warning signs.

Tonight, I banged out a very workmanlike, extremely spicy meal from Bombay, and to my surprise, my finicky children approved.

First, Parsiburgers. Okay, a copout -- but it was a rocky day. One of the easier recipes in King's book, essentially ground turkey mixed with some Asian ingredients (ginger, chile, cilantro). Isabel took one bite and said, in her flat tweener way, yum, then proceeded to eat the whole thing. With her fingers.

Owen also partook copiously, and applauded the quick-cooked greens, commenting that on TV kids are always saying how they don't like spinach when in fact it's really good. His chest puffed out a little as he made this declaration.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about the quick-braised greens which lacked the oily vigor of Chinese-style greens. Also about the carrot-raisin salad. Sweet and orange and innocent-looking, but austere and killer fiery with all that chopped green chili. Tasty, but definitely unusual and vaguely sinister, given childhood associations with carrot-raisin salad.

Dessert was a fresh tangerine "jelly" ("Molded desserts are old-fashioned, certainly, but so much fun," enthuses King.) that collapsed into a bright puddle when I tried to ceremoniously unmold it onto a platter. Though we ate every bite, this engineering failure makes me wonder if I should waste my PINEAU DES CHARENTES!!!! on a possibly futile molded jelly.

I shall pour myself another wee dram and ponder.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

My Bombay Kitchen: Cardamom Cake

So, what exactly is Parsi food?

Parsis, as Niloufer Ichaporia King (pictured above) explains in the chatty, charming history that opens My Bombay Kitchen, are descendants of a small group of Persian Zoroastrians who fled to India rather than convert to Islam. Their cooking reflects the various cultures -- Arab, Indian, British -- that they have brushed up against.

King likes the word "magpie" to describe the Parsi approach to cooking. She's a delightful magpie herself, including in her book a recipe for Swedish cardamom cake. I guess the idea is that if a Parsi bakes this cake, it's a Parsi cake. And having now tasted the cake in question, I am not about to argue.

One of the motivations for starting this blog was to reignite my guttering enthusiasm for cooking. I came home yesterday evening feeling mean and low-spirited after running crabby children all over town in the pitiful minivan (For the second time in a week, I was chased by a guy madly honking his horn who offered to fix the dents for $280. I almost said yes just to stop these dudes from following me. The last guy quoted me $1000.)

Back in my untidy home, I wasn't in the mood to melt a pound of butter and brown it into ghee, but once I started, miraculously, I became happy and calm and maternal and domestic goddessy.

King's seafood ragout (patia) is a beautiful recipe, in which firm white fish (or shrimp -- but I'm down on shrimp lately) is quickly patted with spices, sauteed, and then mixed in this very sweet/sour sauce of onions, tamarind, jaggery (more on this later!!!) and tomatoes. The sauce is the main event here, and it's both tasty and terrifically fun to make -- one of those Indian dishes where you get to turn the stove up to its highest notch and "sizzle" a pile of spices and chilies until the skins blister. Very emphatic and satisfying.

She specified khichri (rice and some legume cooked together into nutritious mush) as a side. I tried her Mother's khichri, for which I used tiny red lentils and my pretty homemade ghee. Alas: woefully bland.
Finally, I tackled the recipe for cardamom cake, described by King as "one of the most precious gifts I've ever received in my life." It comes via a Swedish friend of hers, and I was skeptical as I mixed the batter, which took approximately five minutes. It includes whole "bruised" cardamom seeds, very unorthodox, possibly unappetizing. The cake came out of the oven pale and demure, but, when turned out on the plate, wore a perfect crown of crisp sliced almonds.
How did it taste?

It is one of the most precious gifts I've ever received from a cookbook.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Another Blog is Born

Everybody and her hamster has a blog, and I want one too!

I'm going to write here about my insane relationship with my cookbook collection, which now includes over 1,000 volumes. My plan is to pick out one book every week or two and live inside it, trying the recipes, getting to know the author and -- in the longer run -- attempting to figure out what it is about cookbooks that I find so curiously thrilling. A friend once suggested it was all about food porn, and my face got very red and hot and I began to sputter because that's not it at all. 

But what is it, then? 

We shall see . . . 

Tonight I begin exploring My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer Ichaporia King, one of three titles nominated for the James Beard Award for 2008's best Asian cookbook. Since I already own all three, I figured, why not rig a little tournament before the awards are announced in early June?

These are exciting times. In a few hours: Parsi food.