Monday, March 26, 2007

Tagine Mon Amour

¡Mira! Look what the flamenco guitarist bought me this weekend in Santa Barbara!

A tagine! And such a lusciously curved specimen. And in such a deep shade of coral. It's like art pottery...but functional!

Oh baby, this raises the bar on my Pesach seder significantly. This means that something lambish will definitely be on the menu. I can smell it now...even though I'm not sure what's going to be in it yet.

Eight adults and seven kids are coming to my second-night seder. I don't even have eight chairs for the grown-ups. Much less seats for seven kids and one more for Elija, who's supposed to bring the matzo-ball soup.

I suppose this really will be a night unlike any other night. And on this night we brought our own chairs to the seder table. And reclined upon ornate cushions, which were provided by our winsome hostess, and were pleasing to the eye, and to the buttocks. For she is in possession of many fine cushions and other frivolities such as teapots and tea glasses and coral-colored tagines. Alas, she is sorely lacking in furniture.

Now I'm on the prowl for Moroccan lamb dishes. I betcha the gorgeous Clotilde at chocolate and Zucchini has some. Wonder if she's going to be in California in early April. She'd have to bring her own chair, though.

In any event, I'll find something, probably something with cous-cous, since I can't actually use grain on Pesach, and have a test run with the tagine. Tony gets to sample the output. He doesn't have to bring his own chair, unless he wants to.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Probably not a smart idea...

It's that time of year again. Time again to make the nod toward a religion I adopted because it suits my questioning, snarky nature better than the one I was born into. It's time for Pesach (that's Passover to all you goyim out there).

It's time for another seder.

A seder is a ritualistic meal served every year at Pesach, which involves the reading of certain texts and the eating of certain foods in a certain order. It can be a tedious affair lasting many hours, putting everyone in attendance into a miserable mood.

But unless you're observant, which I'm not, there is a lot of room for creativity. And when I have a seder (I've had three or four of my own), I interpret the rituals broadly.

For example, five years ago I launched the much-truncated and hugely popular Seder For Those With Small Children.

I know. I have no business throwing a seder, since I can't be relied upon to successfully steam asparagus much less prepare several large courses all at once. But I have done it in the past, mostly out of a desire to indoctrinate my children with a sort of basic Judaism that they can forget about as soon as they leave the nest. But also because, damnit, I really do like gathering my friends around a table. But it's a lot of work, and the panic I live with in the days leading up to the event take five years off my life. And that's really starting to add up, so it would be prudent of me to reconsider.

But I've ignored the holiday these last few years in lieu of emotional distress and am now feeling ready to face anything, even those four glasses of Manischewitz. Three additional facts compel me as well:

Kitchen Goddess Julia Regalado will be in town staying with me that week. With her at my back, what could go wrong?

If anything does go wrong, I will have Marsha and Terry in attendance with their traditional Passover Cosmopolitans at the ready, and nobody will care if the lamb turns out as bad as it did that last time.

And even if everything goes wrong, think of the blog fodder.

I got two weeks. And G-d help me. Anyone got any good (and easy!) recipes for charoset?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Cooking with Memsahib

Five things I love that are from India:
Basmati rice

Oh yes. And the food, of course. Ah, Indian take-out. Is there anything that a good chana dal over rice won't cure, atcha? Or milky, chai tea and sinful gulab jaman? I have loved Indian food and the restaurants that serve it from San Francisco to London. But cooking it myself has proved...tricky. Years ago in another life I had the hubris to pick up Madhur Jaffrey's seminal paperback Indian Cooking, and yes, I did go though a phase of trying to perfect a simple dal, to mediocre results. (I'd never attempt a meat dish, although there are few sensations better than a chicken tika that falls off the bone into your fingers and from thence into your waiting mouth). Indeed, the few attempts I've made at Indian home cooking have given me minimal return on investment, so I typically opt to pay professional East Indian cooks to prepare my Indian food so as not to further insult the cuisine.

But then Deb over at Smitten Kitchen had to go and try the potato and cauliflower dish, and she made the raita, of course, and she took pictures of everything, all while waxing poetic about the scent of cumin. The sum total of her blog entry only served to distract me from work and induce me into a temporary madness in which I decided I had no choice but to either A) fob the nits on someone so I could run off to the sublime Udupi Palace in Artesia's Little India that very night, or, B.) make the one recipe I can pull off from Jaffrey's Indian Cooking: Delhi-style lamb cooked with potatoes.

Babysitters are expensive. I opted for choice B.

I wish I could tell you I botched this recipe. I have in the past. But I have also made it enough to feel fairly secure in my ability to pull it off. This is no small thing if you're going to put in the effort to drive across town and spend $15 on lamb kabobs from the fancy-ass organic grocery chain. And I was willing, even though I knew my kids wouldn't touch it (my daughter will sometimes have a bit of lamb, if I wash the sauce off first) and Tony might find it too spicy for his taste. But forget everybody else for once. This one was for me.

Here's the recipe: For my small family I typically halve everything but the spices.

7 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, peeled and minced
1/2 -1 fresh green chili, minced (I routinely omit this)
5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 1/4 pounds lamb (I get lamb kabobs already cut into cubes)
3 medium fresh tomatoes, peeled and finely chopped - canned tomatoes may be substituted (I use one 16-ounce can of diced tomatoes with the juice)
1 tablespoon ground cumin seeds
2 teaspoons ground coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground tumeric
1/4 to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (to your taste)
2 teaspoons salt
1 lb medium potatoes, peeled and cut in half
3 2/3 cup water

Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot over a high flame. When hot, put in the onions, green chili, if using, and garlic. Stir and fry until the onions have browned slightly. Put in the meat and stir vigorously for about 5 minutes. Now put in the spices, continue to stir and cook on high heat for 10-15 minutes or until the sauce is thick and the oil seems to separate from it. Add the potatoes and water. Cover, leaving the lid just slightly ajar, and cook on medium-low heat for about 1 hour and 10 minutes or until the meat is tender and the sauce is thick.

I've found that it's prudent to stir once in a while so stuff doesn't stick to the bottom.

Ms. Jaffrey writes that she likes this "everyday dish" with rice, an Indian bread, or Gujerati-style green beans, the recipe for which is in the book. I typically just serve this in a nice bowl with crusty style bread. And nobody seems to complain. Although I haven't made this dish in several years, I am happy to report that it came out beautifully and did not disappoint (although a nice cold Kingfisher beer would have been the ideal accompaniment). Tony finished his entire serving with great gusto. I don't think he believed I actually made it myself.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Great balls of rice

I lived in Japan for one summer in high school. This expanded my mind and ruined any hope I ever had of being a normal Southern California teenager whose only concerns in life were keeping her tan, driving her boyfriend's Camaro and scoring tickets to the next Journey concert.

The experience lit my passion for travel. And more. Since I went through the Youth For Understanding Toyota Scholarship, I had to write an essay on some aspect of Japanese life. I was assigned food, a topic I was only too happy to tuck into. Among the details I wrote about: In Japan, it's polite to slurp your noodles. Presentation of the food is at least (if not more) important than the taste of the food. And finally, one never eats rice by itself. Why not? It was never explained to me, as my host mother snatched my rice bowl out of my hand and rushed to cut up some fish to go on top of it. It's just not done.

I've revisited Japan several times since then. But I haven't been back since my brother got married to the wonderful Hiromi-chan about four years back. So who's gonna know that I break that cardinal rule with inappropriate regularity?

OnigidimoldI found my O-nigiri mold, you see, and suddenly felt nostalgic. And O-nigiri is one thing my kids will eat. O-nigiri (pronounced, I always heard O-nigidi, with a "d.") is a ball of sticky white rice shaped into a triangle. Typically it has a bit of fish or pickled plum in the middle. It's usually wrapped in crispy seaweed. It's the Japanese equivalent of a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich -- casual home food, not something you normally find in restaurants. Moms stack them up for their kids' lunch or picnics in clever little square containers. I ate two almost every day when I was in Japan (and washed it down with a big glass of Calpis), which might explain the sudden weight gain. My host mother made me several to take with me on the plane home but I ate them all in the airport. Oishi desu-ne??! Years later I stumbled across an O-nigiri mold at a Japanese market and promptly went home to try my hand.

As you can see in the photo above; I got the bug to make O-nigiri but not the bug to drive to Marukai and buy any nori, seasoned, crispy seaweed you can wrap O-nigiri in or eat out of hand. As I wrote about for Kids' Cuisine, my kids are all over Japanese snacks. They eat nori like potato chips. A trip to Marukai, a huge Japanese supermarket not far from where I live, is always a treat. But not today. I had no fish to tuck into the middle, either. Nor did I dare stick in a pickled plum (which I did have, deep in the back of the fridge, fermenting freely), or sprinkle the top with sesame seeds or another seasoning. These authentic touches would have rendered the rice-ball inedible to my picky-ass progeny.

So I made them unadorned. And only screwed up the rice a little bit by putting in a bit too much water. I don't do fractions well, and measurements not specifically spelled out in the instructions on the back of the bag of rice will invariably be my undoing. My fourth-grade daughter knows better than to consult me for her math homework.

These plain balls of rice, which would have so insulted my otosan, they were enthusiastically consumed by my nits. They did wonder where the seaweed was, though.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Kids are all right

See? SEE? Kids are different from you and I. Their palates are unformed and unsophisticated. They eat in unorthodox and curious manner. So why, I ask you, why do we insist on trying to create anything special for them at all?

I know why. Because we love food and we want the little nits to love food too. But I think I might have shot myself in the foot here.

My kids ate widely, and con mucho gusto until right around their third birthdays, when both of them suddenly became textbook examples of picky eaters. Why? What happened?

At the time my firstborn stopped eating (A. would suddenly only eat white bread, white rice, or curly pasta with no butter), I also had newborn J. and things were frantic. My mother gave me some good advice. "Make it easier on yourself," she said. "Find two or three things you know she'll eat and just give her that." So I did. No matter what rich concoction I was attempting for the grown-ups at the time, A. would get her bowl of plain pasta or chunk of bread (with a little dish of something green). I did the same when her baby brother came of picky age. Only he favored Mac & Cheese, PB&J's and DinoNuggets. Thank God for Costco.

Fast forward ten years. My kids are less picky, but still hidebound in their tastes. They also eat on opposite ends of the spectrum. They never want the same thing. A. will eat my tortilla Espanola, but her brother will not. He will eat buttermilk chicken, or fish fingers, or yogurt, but his sister will not. She loves corn. He likes peas. She loves a good hamburger. He's only interested in grilled cheese. Honestly, I don't know how I feed them at all.

I'm starting to realize that maybe I missed some crucial window of opportunity when they were much younger. Reading around the blogosphere, I'm gleaning that the way to an adventurous eater is to not kowtow to their (limited) tastes. Serve them what you're eating and expect them to eat it or let them go hungry. I agree with this heartily. In theory. In practice, I'm no match for that primal instinct toward feeding my progeny. I try to be tough. I serve them salmon. They refuse. They whine. They beg. I cave and boil the water for pasta. It's a vicious cycle.

Of course, maybe it's just my cooking.

Feh. It can't be. They're not old enough to know what real good home cooking can taste like. And so I continue to dream of the day when my kids start digging on salsa verde or channa daal or butternut squash soup. I can't wait for them to fall in love with all the tastes and colors and smells of good eating.

In the meantime I live vicariously through other food bloggers with kids. I just discovered the Gastrokid site, and I'm already a big fan, although these guys clearly have WAY more prowess in the kitchen then I'll ever have. But apparently their children have more evolved palettes than my children as well. More importantly, they apparently will try new things. I plan to ask them for tips.

Janelle over at Talk of Tomatoes knows all about this conundrum. But then, it sounds like her kids are more adventurous than mine as well. Still, she's got a "Default Dinner" recipe here for Italian sausage and roasted red peppers kids would try. And I know I'd eat their portions in any case.

Nikki has one here that involves wagon wheel pasta. Lots of potential there. I might try this one tonight. Or I might make Tony take us all out instead.