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Indian Chutney for an American Summer

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

In the height of summer, a heap of imperfectly gorgeous tomatoes rest on my kitchen island. They beseech me to touch them and make something great. The obvious thing would be to make a lush sauce—but it’s 90 degrees outside, and I’m not in the mood for cozy Italian pasta.

No. These tomatoes are calling out their wish to become a chutney.

“Chatni” is a classic accompaniment to a South Asian meal containing rice, meat and vegetable dishes, and breads. In a typical chatni, fruits and vegetables such as tomato or mango are slow-cooked with spices and ginger, various forms of chilies and the solid brown sugar called jaggery. Jaggery comes from palm sap or sugar cane and is sold in Asian grocery stores. Sometimes garlic and onion are part of the mix. Before the British, mustard and other oils were used to help keep the chutneys from spoiling. The ingredient of vinegar in chutneys comes from Britain, but is now part of some Indian chutney recipes.

Yogurt-based sauces also are known as chutneys; most famously the coriander-mint chutney served at almost every Indian restaurant, and the creamy, sweet and spicy coconut chutney essential to South Indian dosa.

When the British tasted chatni, they loved it. They anglicized the spelling to “chutney” and found ways, after they went back to Britain, to make new chutneys with fruits like apples, plums and rhubarb and the preservative vinegar. A few months ago, I had a great experience making rhubarb chutney. They also created “Major Grey’s Mango Chutney,” a style of sweet and sticky chutney containing raisins, vinegar and a bit of tamarind that is an ingredient in many an American chicken salad. In my family, it is the standard slather over a cheddar cheese sandwich—or grilled cheese.

Sweet mango chutney is the starter chutney for children who are cautious about foreign tastes. Growing up, I had a big spoonful of sweet mango chutney with almost every home cooked Indian meal. I can’t imagine eating biryani without some mango chutney mixed in. These days, Indian food companies such as Patak’s make these Anglo-style mango chutneys with chilies included, if you like.

Back to the homemade tomato chutney. My recipe is inspired by a traditional one found in The Calcutta-Cookbook, A Treasury of Recipes from Pavement to Palace by Minakshie “Kewpie” Das Gupta, Bunny Gupta and Jaya Chaliha. Kewpie was a legendary Bengali home cook and cookbook writer. After Kewpie’s passing, her family opened a jewelbox of a café in her honor within their historic home at 2 Elgin Road. Kewpie’s is a must for lunch, if you are visiting South Kolkata. And the cookbook details how to make “Colonel’s Sweet and Hot Mango Chutney,” which is surely more delicious than the commercial version.

Kewpie’s placemats have charming vintage-inspired drawings of Calcutta life

During my frequent lunches at Kewpie’s in the late 1990s, I enjoyed food served on banana leaves and old-fashioned terra cotta plates. There would always be several extraordinary fresh chutneys served. Not to mention spicy pickles—but vegetable pickle is a story for another column!

My tomato chutney, which does not include raisins or too much chili firepower, is great on sandwiches, burgers, alongside grilled meat and fish. You can mix in 1/3 cup of it with eggplant that’s been roasted and mashed. You wind up with something very much like the famous dish Baigan Bharta, but with 75% less work.

Chutney’s jammy consistency, when it’s ready

The farmer’s market sells larger bunches of herbs than can be eaten in a week—so again, the answer is chutney. I make my cilantro-mint chutney with Greek yogurt for extra protein. It’s a natural with crispy treats like samosas, pakoras or with grilled fish. This green chutney is a great marinade for chicken pieces to be baked or grilled.

Here are my tomato, cilantro-mint and rhubarb chutney recipes. Please note that these chutneys are designed to be refrigerated in glass jars or bowls with lids. They are not shelf-stable.

I’m winding up my culinary adventures to return to my real work: writing a novel. It strikes me, though, that concocting a chutney is a bit like writing a mystery. There are so many interchangeable small parts: fruits and vegetables, spices, and preserving vinegars or oils. When I write, I pull together many pieces: characters, plots and sub-plots, settings, conflicts, motivations. I contemplate when I’ve got too much of one thing or am missing an important element. My book’s components are adjusted as it grows toward a finished state.

But while it takes a year for me to write a book, a chutney rarely simmers more than thirty minutes.  This makes it a small but gratifying accomplishment.

The Mint-Flavored Novel

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Sujata, Jeffery Deaver, and Mid-Atlantic MWA chapter prez Donna Andrews

A week ago Sunday, I sat in a crowded conference room in Bethesda and listened to a few comparison of novels to toothpaste. When you go looking for toothpaste at the drugstore, what would you think if your favorite one was missing—because Proctor & Gamble hadn’t felt inspired to make any toothpaste that month?

And if you were planning to launch a toothpaste for humans, would you flavor it with liver because it was your great original idea, or would you choose mint?

These were some of the provocative questions posed by Jeffery Deaver, the current president of Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and the bestselling author of 35 thrillers, most recently The Burial Hour. Mr. Deaver had kindly come to Bethesda, MD to teach a writing craft workshop, “Taking It To The Next Level,” for the Mid-Atlantic chapter of MWA. Not all of he had to say was new to me, but honestly, we writers forget what we should be doing. The care and revision taken with a first novel can easily fall by the wayside once a writer’s on a yearly publishing schedule. Listening to Mr. Deaver’s multi-page presentation (he gave us all typed notes on clipboards!) was like imbibing a very healthy smoothie after years of too much coffee.

Our guru started our morning by explaining the toothpaste metaphor: “You write for people, you don’t write for yourself. You are a professional running a business. And with the regard to the flavor of your book—think if it has an audience. You need to ask is this concept, “mint”? Is the plotting “mint,” are the character names “mint”?

This advice doesn’t exactly line up with the “write the book you want to read that doesn’t yet exist” tip that explains how I’ve come up with my concepts for two mystery series. I believe his concept of “mint,” though, doesn’t mean writing something that’s already out there. It refers to creating a book that’s easy for readers to fall in love with, that tastes good from the very first page.

He spent gobs of time talking about how to plan a book—because that’s how he spends eight months every year, doing research (always saved in his own words) and a plot outline that’s usually 150 pages long. He likens the craft of building a book by following directions, just as aviation engineers put together an airplane. Would the engineers stick a wing or a tail in a random place just because they felt like it?  No! They always follow directions.

Mr. Deaver points out the time that will be saved if you plan rather than experiment. I too am an outliner, but the longest outline I’ve written was just shy of thirty pages. And I’ve never solved every nuance of the mystery in my outlines, which he says is the lynchpin to writing a satisfying mystery or thriller.

He acknowledged writers can go forward without having plotted everything, but they will spend much more time thinking of what to write than actually writing.

The hardest thing for me is looking at an elaborate sequence of linked events that lead to a startling conclusion that makes complete sense. I freeze when it comes to writing twisty plots—but when Mr. Deaver was talking about it, I suddenly realized that it might be fun to try—and I could keep track of each idea by putting it on a Post-It note.

So, the day after the workshop, I tried. Not only with the plot of my next book, but with a family tree for my characters. With deep outlining, I could track my backstory of the mystery as well as the chief adventure. However, I was doing this outlining at the midpoint of writing book 2, not before the whole shebang. But that was fine. I was seeing new opportunities for using my characters since I’d been working with them a few months already.

Back to “Taking It To The Next Level.” I perked up after a coffee break, when the topic turned to writing stories that hook readers emotionally. Mr. Deaver had plenty to say—more than I can reprise here (he will teach this course again). I appreciated his point about the writer frequently raising questions that have important consequences. This means lots of cliffhangers and “wow moments”—rather than just one big climax, as is the structure in a lot of mysteries. “Promise and don’t deliver!” he said, reminding me of someone in Washington, DC. He meant raising questions in the reader’s mind and delaying answering them for as long as possible.

And then there’s the issue of making good on all the suspicious aspects you’ve raised. Don’t leave the red herrings uncooked! Jeffery Deaver strives to resolve every conflict, character, clue and subplot by the end. He will go through a manuscript 30 to 40 times to make sure this happens, and that the language sounds utterly natural. By the time such a book is finished, it is a “mint” example of quality mystery.

In the last minutes of the class Mr. Deaver warned us to never allow our characters to get in jeopardy because of a stupid act like allowing a phone to go dead. And conversely, I’m relieved that not one of the writers’ mobile phones rang during the workshop.

Original Brooklyn

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Summer driving trips are on an upswing. Why not? Gas is cheap, and it’s often faster to drive to nearby state than to fly or take the train. Feeling all these things, plus a desire for a short summer road trip, I packed up the Highlander Hybrid and took off for Brooklyn.

The mission was for my husband and me to deliver our teenage son to three-week-long performing arts camp, a significant expense—but one that we sensed would give him a great deal of pleasure, and perhaps help him think about ways to share his stellar guitar performances beyond the confines of his bedroom. And the SUV had enough room to carry an amp and guitar and all the extras needed for a camper—plus room for my  husband and me to bring overnight bags for our own adventure.

We were all going to be happy campers.

Tony and I hadn’t been in Brooklyn since visiting friends 22 years ago who were renting in the once borderline North Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill. Our friends had long since departed a neighborhood that became very chic. We stayed in a small hotel at the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Smith Street, which had turned into a kind of gourmet row full of Danish, French and Asian restaurants. Brooklyn seemed a paradise of good food and sophisticated little shops selling everything from tea to the premium British Farrow and Ball paint.

Still, you knew it wasn’t a fake city. The Brooklyn Detention Center faced directly across the street from the Nu Hotel. However, the jail also looked rebuilt.

Fortunately, the Middle Eastern grocery shops I remembered from the 1990s were still thriving on Atlantic Avenue. Sahadi’s had a James Beard Award sign in its window when we walked in to buy Aleppo pepper flakes and ras-el-hanout Moroccan spice mix. I got my pita across the way at Damascus Bread and Pastry Shop, which was filled with jovial customers perhaps shopping for Eid.

After we’d stashed the food in the hotel, we wandered into the residential area known as Boerum Hill. Did you ever read Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Set 100 years ago, that novel showed the poverty and lack of opportunity for the poor and working class in Brooklyn. Today, a lot of tall trees line Brooklyn streets filled with well-kept brownstones. The attached-house architecture reminded me of typical areas in Baltimore, although ours are brick, stucco or wood—and we call them rowhouses. Deja vu continued when we went to dinner at a jazz supper club in Williamsburg, the neighborhood of the book. It was delightful to pass a bar that didn’t have hipsters drinking aperitifs, but older local people who were joyfully slapping dominos.

On a Sunday morning, we walked from our hotel to the Brooklyn Promenade, a walk that takes one along the piers of the waterfront known as Brooklyn Bridge Park. Lots of native plants had built a lush landscape, and tucked behind tall shrubs were a series of inviting family playgrounds, some of which had playground sets and others, pools and sprinklers.

At the Park’s Pier 1, we came upon “Descension,” an art installation by an Indian artist, Ashish Kapoor, who had created a large, round whirlpool filled by the nearby sea water. I found it mesmerizing to stare into the churning water. My thoughts whirled about how Brooklyn once was the kind of poor and working class town that Baltimore still (mostly) is. The two cities were linked by similar architecture, a past history of industry jobs, and attractive, developed urban waterfronts. But why was Brooklyn so much more successful?

The answer was staring at me across the water: Manhattan and its prime jobs. That’s what my own city needed to become more than a bleak setting for crime shows on television.

On our last morning in Brooklyn, Tony and I strolled Smith Street, looking for the teashop we’d recalled seeing during the hubbub of the previous evening’s street festival. The French cafe, Tabac, where I’d had a salad of greens, beets and goat cheese for the previous day’s lunch, was bustling with breakfast diners at its outdoor tables, but the area was largely quiet. We talked about how much we’d enjoyed Brooklyn, which was so surprisingly tranquil… but we couldn’t imagine upgrading to such a place. The cost!

We were startled by a tall man in his twenties walking fast toward us on the largely empty sidewalk. His mouth twisted into a grimace as he drew close. He barked: “You’re running it.” Seeing the confusion on our faces, because he clarified it. “You rich people are running it here.”

The stranger strode off before I could explain that we were actually “bridge and tunnel crowd” who couldn’t afford to buy a Boerum Hill brownstone and paint its door in Farrow & Ball aubergine. I tried to remember the last time someone had verbally accosted me in New York.

And then, I did.

Back in the 1980s, I was a young woman who occasionally came into New York to visit college friends and report news for the Baltimore Evening Sun. I remember arriving in Manhattan on a rainy afternoon and trying to hail a cab. One stopped, and its driver, a white man, gave me a second look after I told him to take me to the Upper East Side. He asked, “Do you tend to have trouble catching cabs?”

“When it rains, it’s difficult,” I’d answered uncertainly. What was he getting at?

He gave me a hard look. “I mean, isn’t it hard to get a cab because you looked Hispanic? Who wants to stop? I don’t want to drive to Spanish Harlem.”

The cabbie was trying to put me in my place—just as the guy on Smith Street was doing.

Back to 2017. I was shocked that a stranger would mistakenly infer from the sight of me that I was a wealthy interloper. Yet I couldn’t deny that we’d booked two nights in a hotel intending to enjoy the restaurants, shops and parks of Brooklyn.

However, in his mission to make a tourist couple feel uncomfortable, the angry young man communicated something quite valuable.

There are people living in Brooklyn who don’t have handsome houses with aubergine-painted doors. They are the Brooklyn originals who worry that, in a few years, there might not be any room left.

The Power of Silk

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Roopa Pemmaraju and Lily Hargrave's design

Roopa Pemmaraju and Lily Hargraves’ design

A week ago, I walked down to the consignment shop near my house and picked up a fashion mystery.

The mystery came in the form of a long dress of purple-blue printed silk crepe lined in cotton. The stitching was minute and clearly done by hand. Examining the dress, I flashed back to my first long dress and blouse custom-stitched for me at a tailor’s in Hyderabad when I was ten years old.

But the pattern was unusual. The silk was printed with thick black brushstrokes that burst like a tree over my legs. The design was not pretty; it was strong and vibrated in a way that reminded me of something strangely familiar, but that I couldn’t identify. The label read Lily Hargraves for Roopa Pemmaraju.

I’d never heard the names, but the funky silk dress fit perfectly and was an unbelievable $68. I snapped it up and was soon on the Internet searching its provenance.

Within ten minutes I had some solid information that told me I’d made a very special buy. Roopa is an Indian-born designer who’d had her own fashion label, Haldi. She left India to move to Melbourne, Australia, with her husband for his IT job. Roopa became inspired with the idea of bringing Australian aboriginal art into fashion that would be a far cry from the cheap cotton T-shirts sold to tourists. However, her interest wasn’t welcomed by gallery owners and artists. I mentioned T-shirts? Many indigenous artists have been exploited by Australians and others who copied their designs without paying them.

Roopa Pemmaraju

But Roopa had a vision of a business model that was different. I’m going to call it the Indian artisan model. Throughout India, there’s been a longstanding tradition of custom clothing making—and certain villages are known for a certain kind of block printing, or silk weaving, or cotton embroidery.

A Gujarati textile with folk motif has great energy

These niche technique are prized, and the regional artisans are celebrated by contemporary designers who ask them to do finishing touches such as embroidery around a neckline or hem. Mahatma Gandhi, who advocated wearing handspun clothing as a way of resisting the British in the early 20th century, would be smiling today if he could see the “desi chic,” “ethnic-cool and “modern handloom” fashions that are the rage.

The Fab India chain that sells clothes for all ages and sizes stitched from silks and cottons hand-loomed by people in rural communities. Also well-known are Anokhi and Cottons Jaipur, retail chains that specialize in fashion made from cotton woven, dyed and block-printed in Rajasthan. A high-end designer, Ritu Kumar, has spent the last quarter century collaborating with Kala Raksha, an organization in India supporting hereditary artists, and several other regional textile weavers and embroiderers. Last year in India, I was pleased to buy a Ritu Kumar kurti (woman’s tunic) with a meticulously hand embroidered placket typical of the Kutch region of Gujarat. But the coloration is subtle and works well with the modern printed silk fabric.

Fine hand embroidery on a Ritu Kumar kurti

Back to the Australian-Indian collaboration: How could an Indian woman new to Australia convince aboriginal artists to work with her?

Here’s what Roopa did.  She pledged to give credit where it was due. She offered put the artist’s name on each of her garments. Remember the mystery of two women’s names on my dress label? Here is Lily Hargraves, a “desert walker” in her nineties who’s one of Australia’s top aboriginal artists. Her paintings are exhibited around the world and sell for thousands of dollars.

Lily Hargraves

Lily’s full name is Lily Nungarrayi Yirringali Jurrah Hargraves, although she’s most often known in art circles by the short Anglo name. She was born in the Northwest Territory in 1930 and having had a number of very hard jobs throughout her life, began painting in the tradition of her ancestors about thirty years ago. Lily is recognized as a senior Law Woman, which means she is an officiant of Waipiri indigenous culture—and her story is fascinating. And here are some of her paintings from the online museums and galleries in Australia. Looking at her work made me realize that’s a tree on the front of my dress.

Looking through Roopa’s designs since the 2012 collection that included my “Lily Blue Dress,” I’ve noticed that indigenous artist names are continuing to decorate the dress labels. Additionally, the design label is donating 20% of her profits to aboriginal groups. And the India connection also helps artists, because the silk is printed and embroidered in India at Roopa’s artisan workshop in Bangalore. The subtleties of clothing construction are overseen in India by Roopa’s co-artist, the acclaimed designer Sudhir Swain. The most recent collection—Resort 2018—was just shown in Australia a week ago and shows a riot of glorious abstract floral motifs merging with gauzy, gilded Indian silk.

Roopa Pemmaraju 2018 collection

Roopa Pemmaraju 2018

Some might argue that fusing two cultures like this degrades the original. But fashion by its nature is an evolution.

Mahatma Gandhi told his followers a century ago what you choose to wear delivers power.  Just this spring in Europe and America, women have been attacked for wearing traditional Muslim clothing items like the hijab and abaya. Given this context, wearing the textiles of international designers and artisans feels like another way to show resistance.

Bookworm’s Paradise in New York

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The program ad for my next book!

The program ad for my next book!

Last week, I got caught in a perfect storm: hot weather and hotter books.

I was in New York City for BookExpo—once known as BEA, or Book Expo America. Starting this year, the show’s name was shortened to emphasize the global nature of the event. BookExpo is the largest book trade fair in North America and has bounced between convention centers in Washington DC, Chicago, and New York since 1947. Although it’s not as populated a gathering as those in Frankfurt and London, I was impressed by its scale. I hadn’t known it was possible to produce book banners the size of a house, and that no space could escape advertising: not even the stairs.

Precisely positioned Pullman steps

Precisely positioned Pullman steps

Who's got the biggest banner?

Who’s got the biggest banner?

My marquee event was the Library Reads Dinner at the elegant Yale Club. It was humbling to be invited by a librarians’ association to set on a panel with five other writers with serious credentials. I was there with Corner of Bitter and Sweet bestseller Jamie Ford; powerful National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward; humor memoirist John Hodgman; science journo Annalee Newitz; and debut true crime guy Ben Blum.

Librarians paying attention in the gorgeous Yale Club

Librarians paying attention in the gorgeous Yale Club

Do I sound too buzzy? I guess the marketing and PR focus of BookExpo has gone to my head. We were each charged with pitching our books and speaking of the power of libraries at 13 minutes per writer. I’d practiced with a stopwatch.

Jamie Ford, myself and Annalee Newitz after the pitching

Jamie Ford, myself and Annalee Newitz after the pitching

My turn arrived in the middle of the Library Reads dinner, when the petit fours and coffee were being served. I spoke about my misadventures getting library cards at the National Library of India and the British Library and explained that my new mystery series is inspired by the legal cases of India’s first woman lawyer, Cornelia Sorabji. I told the librarians that I wouldn’t have thought of a woman lawyer series if Cornelia’s early 20th century memoirs hadn’t been preserved. I also went into some detail on how her scanned memoir’s pages were riddled with holes made by a hungry bookworm. I thought my comments about the true origins of the word “bookworm” would get some knowing chuckles, but no luck. Maybe it was because they were trying to eat dessert, or because insect-damaged paper is not a joke for anyone working in a library. Fortunately, they laughed at some other parts.

It was inspiring to hear my fellow panelists talk about their own library experiences—and the next day, to see Annalee with Charlie Jane Anders and Malka Older on a women’s science fiction panel. I also scored a signed copy of Jamie Ford’s next book, picked up ARCs from other writers, had bagels with my agent and hung out with the gang at Soho Press, who are bringing out my new Perveen Mistry series.

Charlie Jane Anders, Malka Older and Annalee Newitz are sci-fi wiz women

Charlie Jane Anders, Malka Older and Annalee Newitz are sci-fi wiz women

Soho Friends: PR Paul Oliver and Managing Editor Rachel Kowal

Soho Friends: PR Paul Oliver and Managing Editor Rachel Kowal

A friendly parade of librarians, journalists and booksellers came by Soho’s booth to chat with us and get signed advance reader copies of The Widows of Malabar Hill. Signing these paperback galleys was a surreal experience. I had to remind myself this wasn’t an actual book event, because the hardcover first editions won’t hit bookshelves until January 2018. That’s seven long months away.

The haul I brought home!

The haul I brought home!

That afternoon, I rode the train home to Baltimore. My nose was already in the galley for Timothy Hallinan’s next Bangkok thriller, Fool’s River, and I had twelve more ARCs jammed into several promotional tote bags.

The bookworm felt rewarded.

Baltimore’s Rap Sheet Grows

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I was as eager as anyone to see Netflix new television miniseries, The Keepers. The program, which investigates an unsolved murder in 1969 Baltimore, has received admiring reviews. It’s the story of former Keough School students—now women in their sixties—trying to identify the killer of their beloved teacher, Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik.

The Keepers is a sensitive, well-produced show which gives proper gravity to the crime and its lifelong impact on family and friends. I was sad at the end of the first episode, but for reasons that go beyond what I’d watched.

You see, The Keepers is just the latest Baltimore crime story.

It follows a wildly successful podcast called Serial that re-investigates the prosecution of Adnan Syed, a young Baltimore man for the 1999 murder of his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Sarah Koenig, the investigative reporter who wrote the podcast, discover many pieces of suppressed evidence that might have kept Adnan from jail. After the podcast, a series of legal challenges were made, and Adnan was granted a second trial, which will be held next year.

Serial made its splash following David Simon’s The Wire, an internationally celebrated HBO series focusing on Baltimore police’s battle against crime, and before that Homicide, another Simon series with crime on Baltimore’s streets.

Homicide: Life on the Streets

Interestingly, each of these crime dramas involves the hand of an alumnus or alumna of the Baltimore Sun—the great daily newspaper where I began my own writing career. When I was a college intern working at the paper, I had Sunday duty on the “crime desk.” It meant calling the various police stations to learn how many people had died and by what means. What I did was the very opposite of hardboiled beat reporting.

David Simon of Homicide and The Wire, Sarah Koenig of Serial, and Bob Erlandson, who’s interviewed in The Keepers, were highly seasoned Sun writers who followed some homicides for months—or even years.  A freelance journalist, Tom Nugent, collected research on Sister Cathy for years and wrote a 6000-word article about her for the Baltimore City Paper in 2005.

I greatly admire the reporting and editing that went into all of these programs. But the rise of this genre disturbs me. It makes me concerned that Baltimore’s image around the world is nothing but murder.

It would be cool if network executives were interested in a parallel track: dramatic programming about Baltimore that weren’t so deadly. The only non-murder show that comes to mind is Ace of Cakes, a reality show on the Food Network.

Just thirty years ago, the city’s image was charmingly quirky. In the late 1980s, films like The Accidental Tourist, Hairspray, and Diner served up a historic East Coast city short on glamour, but full of characters. People fretted that Baltimore was always typecast as the home of cheerful, blue collar people who spoke with long Os. We all wanted to get beyond that stereotype and diversify.

I wouldn’t mind a few Os, if I could get some back.

A Sour Treat

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Pink rhubarb stalks fill the tables at farmers’ markets in early spring. With the stiff body shape of celery and the tender texture of a fruit, rhubarb is the barb of jokes—a misunderstood and under-appreciated bit of produce.

I speak as a rhubarb convert. The first time I saw the ragged green plant growing near the garages of my first two houses in two different states, I thought it was an inconvenient weed that needed to be dug out. Someone explained it was rhubarb, but I still wasn’t drawn to trying it. For starters, the rhubarb was on a dog-walking route. I’d seen canines appreciating it. I also recalled stories about part of the rhubarb plant being poisonous.

Minnesota-grown rhubarb (Gertens)

But the shunned rhubarb gnawed at me. Cafes and gourmet friends offered me delicious desserts where rhubarb was an ingredient, sometimes mixed in with strawberries or other sweet fruit.  I developed respect for the soft, tangy substance that was proving itself a valuable team player. I felt better knowing just the big green leaves of the plant are full of oxalic acid—the infamous poison. The stems are edible raw or cooked.

I bought my first bunch of rhubarb from the Wedge, a Minneapolis co-op grocery. Since rhubarb does very well in places with cold, wet winters, Minnesota turned out to be a prime spot to buy rhubarb. I made a cobbler that I thought was tasty, although nobody in the family clamored for it. Too sour, they said. In my mind, rhubarb’s tang is similar to that of lemon curd—but ever so much more succulent.

And rhubarb’s got more going on that the average fruit or vegetable. Both Chinese and Europeans discovered the stems aid with digestion, so it was used as culinary medicine. Rhubarb is rich in  calcium, and Vitamins C and A; however, its superstar ingredient is Vitamin K, which fosters brain health. A single serving of rhubarb provides 45% of suggested daily Vitamin K.

The stems themselves have a lot of power—they cause the blood to run thin. This means rhubarb is something that shouldn’t be eaten to excess by hemophiliacs or people on blood thinners. But you could make it a regular part of your diet if you’re bulking up on foods to potentially stave off dementia, need calcium to strengthen your bones, or are wishing to be more “regular.”

Rhubarb enthusiasts have their own heaven on earth. The Rhubarb Triangle is a nine-square mile area between three villages in West Yorkshire. For generations, Yorkshire farmers have treated rhubarb like royalty, raising it in barns lit by candles in order to avoid sunlight’s photosynthesis, that would color the leaves and stripe the stems green. This results in a deep red color of the stems, and supposedly sweeter flavor.

Rhubarb Triangle-grown rhubarb plants have leaves that are chartreuse!

The thing about garden-variety rhubarb is one only has to add sugar to make it what you want. Apparently rural children sometimes eat raw rhubarb canes are dipped in sugar and eaten. I tried this, but it was too hard and sour for my taste. It brought me back to thinking about poison.

The mystery writer began pondering exactly how rhubarb could wreak havoc. She imagined an impatient woman in her fifties serving lunch to her eighty-year-old aunt, a wealthy woman who’s a health fanatic and has been living too long for everyone’s taste. The oxalic acid leaves were shredded and went into a salad with a sweet dressing. The evil lady’s idea was that the bitter taste would be misidentified as escarole or another bitter lettuce—greens that the elderly aunt approves of. However, you’d have to eat a LOT of rhubarb leaves to die, rather be sickened. My guess is the old lady would recover and write her niece out of the will.

Ingredients for rhubarb compote

Ingredients for rhubarb-apple chutney

Cooking rhubarb chutney

One farmer’s market bundle of rhubarb can be transformed into one very sweet cobbler or pie. But you can find those recipes everywhere! I took that bundle and divided it to create two non-dessert rhubarb recipes. They’re so easy you can cook them at the same time and have a rhubarb compote with yogurt for breakfast, a cheese-and-rhubarb-apple chutney sandwich for lunch, and a scoop of that chutney with an Indian or Western dinner. If you really wanted to push it, you could put warm compote with ice cream or on cake for dessert.

Rhubarb-Apple Chutney (makes 1 ½ cups)

  • 1 ½ cup diced rhubarb (about 1-inch)
  • ½ cup diced apple (any sweet kind)
  • ½ cup dried cherries
  • ¼ cup finely chopped red onion
  • ¼ cup water
  • ¼ cup honey
  • 1 tsp grated fresh ginger
  • 1 ½ teaspoons red-wine vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper (1 dried chili pounded)
  1. In a small non-reactive saucepan, add rhubarb, apple, cranberries (or cherries), onion, water, honey, ginger, vinegar and crushed red pepper. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until rhubarb is tender, about 10 minutes. Uncover and simmer about 5 more minutes, until it becomes a thick sauce.
  2. Pour into a glass container with lid and refrigerate.

Rhubarb-Apple Chutney is good with rice and other elements of an Indian meal, or on the side with grilled or roasted meats. It’s also nice on a sharp cheddar cheese sandwich. The chutney will keep in the refrigerator for about a week.

Rhubarb Compote (makes 1 cup)

  • 1 ½ cup diced rhubarb (about 11/2-inch)
  • ¼ cup white sugar
  • ¼ cup fresh orange juice
  • 3 pieces of orange peel
  • 3 whole cloves
  1. Combine all ingredients in a small non-reactive saucepan. Cover, bring to a rapid boil and cook over low heat for 15 minutes, until the rhubarb is tender, stirring occasionally.
  2. After the compote has cooled, taste it for sweetness and add extra sugar if you like. Remove the orange peel.
  3. Pour into a glass container with a lid and refrigerate.

Rhubarb compote stays fresh keeps in the fridge for one week. It’s good with Greek yogurt or whipped cream; mixed into porridge; or spooned over pancakes or  sponge cake. One word to the wise is the two recipes look almost identical, once cooked. So label them—unless you like the taste of red onions mixed with ice cream.

The finished chutney

In Minneapolis, Purple Still Reigns

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

dem atlas covers Prince this past weekend

Last weekend, when I was visiting the “Twin Cities” of Minneapolis and St. Paul, I was hit with an unexpected surge of purple.

Purple was the favorite color of Prince, a Minnesota funk-rock star—and April 21 was the one-year anniversary of his untimely death in 2016 by overdose. I grew up in St. Paul and was just a few years younger than the man born Prince Rogers Nelson. Prince released his first album, Soft and Wet, at the age of 17, and I avidly followed his every move over the next several decades, as did my sisters.  Like Prince, we were young people of color living in a state that was predominantly white. There were no black musicians played on the radio except for on our sole “black” station, KMOJ-FM.

Scene outside First Avenue at Prince Memorial

It was hard to make friends, or find someone willing to date you, when you were a few shades darker than the majority or had an unpronounceable name. It was exhilarating to see Prince—a small, light-skinned black man who wore lace and satin and high heels—fearlessly be himself.

Artists who perform at First Ave are celebrated in stars. Only Prince’s is golden

Prince’s biggest local shows were at a large nightclub called First Avenue at the downtown Minneapolis. First Avenue remains one of the top national nightclubs that still showcases local performers. Prince’s first film, Purple Rain, is a fictitious story in which he plays “The Kid,” someone very much like himself, trying to make it in show business, get the girl, and deal with some hard family issues. The 1984 movie was a hit, with Prince’s artistry stealing the show. Watching it later, I notice how mixed-race his audience appeared. People seemed to forget about traditional boundaries and fell in love with his hypnotic beats and daring lyrics. I mark this as the start of a new Minnesota.

Purple Rain, best film score ever

Prince shot to stardom shortly after I’d become 18, the legal age to go to First Avenue’s night shows. When he came to Baltimore’s Civic Center, I was a college student and bought a ticket to his show. I pushed my way to the edge of backstage and gave one of the roadies a note addressed to my high school friend, Susan Moonsie, who’d become a singer in one of his custom-made opening bands: Vanity 6. I was gloriously lucky to find myself escorted backstage, where I hung out with Susan all night and met the other Vanity 6 singers and the men of The Time. However, I didn’t get to exchange words with Prince. Susan didn’t want to introduce me because the two of them were in an argument.

Brenda, Vanity and Susan of Vanity 6

Despite his superstar status, Prince never abandoned Minnesota. He built a massive home and recording studio in the suburb of Chanhassen named Paisley Park, after one of his songs, and often opened it to friends and fans who came for private parties with performances. Prince sometimes showed up to play at Minneapolis’s Dakota jazz club or First Avenue.

Paisley Park is now open to tourists

During Prince’s adult years, Minnesota diversified. The state became the chief home of refugees from Somalia. It became a leader in families with international adoptions and was said to be “the gayest city after San Francisco.”

Last weekend St. Paul, Minneapolis and Edina lit their buildings and bridges purple honoring Prince

Was Prince a symbol of civic change—or was he an agent of change?

I wondered about this as I walked through the Twin Cities last weekend listening to the top favorite 89 Prince Songs on The Current, a Minnesota Public Radio station that, like KMOJ, had a special relationship with the artist. Spring comes late in the upper Midwest—while the grass was green, the tulips were just popping and the trees were taking on a light haze of leaves. In many neighborhoods, the gardens sprouted yard signs: “Black Lives Matter,” and “Falcon Heights: The World is Watching,” a reference to the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile in my own neighborhood that came a few months after Prince’s death.

The most popular sign was in rainbow hues, with the state of Minnesota on one sign and on the other, the phrase, “All Are Welcome Here.” The overt activism reminded me of the growing political and spiritual content of Prince’s work in the years just before his death. He had his eyes on the world, and he wanted to keep building bridges.

In April 2015, I was living in Baltimore during a period that it seemed one black male after another was killed by police. In Baltimore, a young man named Freddie Gray was arrested on suspicion of carrying drugs; he died after a short ride to jail in a police van. During a two-day period after Freddie’s funeral, areas of Baltimore were filled with destructive protestors and hundreds of fires were set. We endured almost a week of curfew and a city takeover by soldiers with the National Guard.

We never dreamed that Prince’s career would end a year later

As the city was stilling itself, the city had stilled—but hardly returned to normal—Prince announced he was coming to Baltimore to perform a free “Rally 4 Peace.” He booked the Royal Farms Arena at his own expense. He wrote a song called “Baltimore” that was compassionate yet had a happy, bopping beat. The song will never be his greatest hit, but it seems a perfectly distilled essence of his style and dogged determination to share joy as the way forward.

A Tale of Two City Festivals

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Thousands of cherry trees blossom every spring in Washington DC, a tradition spanning 105 years. At the same time, brilliant light sculptures and art installations glow along the port promenade in Baltimore. Two festivals I’d never experienced drew me away from my work. Which festival first?

I started out on a gray Thursday morning toward Washington DC, hoping rain wouldn’t come. It was my wedding anniversary, and my husband Tony and I had taken the day off. The traffic gods were kind and the car reached the cherry blossom zone just an hour after leaving Baltimore. We strolled from the parking garage to eat ceviche and amazing tacos at a fine Mexican restaurant, Oyamel, owned by chef Jose Andres. We visited the Building Museum and National Portrait Gallery, spending not enough time because we wanted to reach the nearby cherry blossom trail.

The DC cherry blossom festival has quite a history. The trees would never be there, if it weren’t for a woman’s persistence. Bringing Japanese trees to Washington DC was the idea of a globe-trotting journalist, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, who fell in love with Japan’s signature tree when she was touring the East. Starting in the 1880s, Mrs. Scidmore lobbied the US government for 24 years with her idea of a mass transplantation of Japanese trees to beautify the new parkland in the city that had been reclaimed from the Potomac.

She had no luck until 1909, when she found a fellow cherry blossom enthusiast in David Fairchild, an Agriculture Department official who’d transplanted Japanese cherries to his own home. However, the government only agreed after Eliza reconnected with an American lady she’d once met in Japan. As the nation’s new First Lady, Helen Herren Taft got the cherry tree plan in motion.

However, the first 3000 trees sent from Japan in 1911 were never planted During their shipment, they fell  victim to insect infestation. The only thing that could be done to keep the environment safe was to burn them all. Still, the Tokyo government, and a Japanese chemist named Jokichi Takamine, were willing to send 3020 more trees the next year. This group of healthy trees took root and flourished, even through World War II, when Japan was an enemy and the trees were referred to as “Oriental cherry trees” in the hopes of avoiding their destruction.

Cherry trees typically live 40 to 45 years, so the trees one sees today are not Eliza’s trees. But they are splendid indeed and provide a fairyland feeling when you stand underneath. It was delightful to be walking in the cherry fairyland, rather than being trapped inside one of the many giant tour buses circling around. I was also pleased that the parkland hadn’t been overtaken with more sales vendors than usual. The photo-snapping crowds made me recall Japan’s “Hanami,” a special cherry-blossom viewing time that inspired The Flower Master, my mystery novel set in Tokyo’s flower arranging world.

The day after our DC excursion, the rains came. And this slowed the beginning of Baltimore’s Light City Festival, which was set to run for 9 days for the second year in a row at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Brooke Hall and Justin Allen, a married arts-and-marketing couple, came up with the idea of a new festival that would bring the arts to the heart of the city. They did their research and crafted a proposal for a spectacular walk filled with lighted sculptures and entertainment. Fortunately, it did not take 24 years to get the Baltimore Office of Promotion to agree to fund Light City Baltimore.

Then the fun began. Artists from many states and countries vied for placement in a very challenging venue—as several of the electric installations are in the harbor’s waters, and all the pieces were subject to high winds and rain at various times during the nine-day festival period. It’s one thing to have your art in an international show—it’s another to realize doing this outdoors could cause its destruction.

The Saturday night we went to Light City Baltimore was the rain date for the delayed opening celebration, with a full line-up of musicians, dancers and magicians. The harbor promenade was edged with vendors selling food and drink, and harbor restaurants and bars were packed. There was a great sense of energy and happiness. Some artists were on hand to explain their work, and other art works were open for exploration, including a field of bright dots, an illuminated see-saw, and a lighted rickshaw with a glamorous Chinese lantern. Among my favorites were a floating installation of 400 umbrellas and an illuminated honeycomb. I’ve been to a lot of festivals over 25 years in Baltimore, and this was the most spectacular.

As I came away from the festivals, I had two thoughts. The Japanese cherry trees were brought to beautify a fledgling city that has subsequently prospered. And the lighted art walk illuminates an old city trying to recast itself in its fourth century.

Takeaways from Paradise

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

This classic cookbook details the heritage of Hawaiian cooking

I’m the last member of Murder is Everywhere to write about the Left Coast Crime convention on the Island of Oahu. Jeffrey shared the people part of the convention and the contrasts between busy Oahu and quiet Kauai. Susan got up insanely early to photograph a sunrise view from Diamond Head crater. Here’s my takeaway from a week in Paradise.

I’ve been coming regularly to Oahu since the early 1990s—five visits so far, and each time I feel more at home. In the early years I  was a military spouse spending time with my husband, who was on TDY (that’s temporary active duty, not tidying). We stayed on the Leeward side  and began developing a long-lasting group of coworkers and friends.

Later on, I came to Hawaii to teach as an artist in residence at the Iolani School, so I stayed at a hotel on the Waikiki tourist strip. And most recently, I was with the mystery convention at the Hilton Hawaiian Village on the edge of downtown. I’ve been to the North Shore, to Kailua and Kanaoehe, to Waimanalo Beach, Hanama Bay, and just about every museum the island has. While it’s easy to deplore the concrete invasion of Honolulu, I enjoy everything else, and I appreciate the fact that Honolulu is a real city with a diversity of jobs that go beyond tourism.

Oahu’s balmy, non-humid, sunny weather with temps mostly in the 80s make it a great island for walkers. I did 10,000-20,000 steps daily on my recent week at Left Coast Crime. This was not part of an exercise plan. I simply woke up early, left the hotel, and walked along the water, whether it was Waikiki Beach or Ala Moana. Then I’d have some breakfast. Last year, I did the same amount of walking on my way to dinner.

Any time of day, the food is quite amazing. Honolulu has developed a regional cuisine with an evolving emphasis on healthy fruits and vegetables. Due to Hawaii’s distance from where most fruit and veg is farmed, food is never going to be dirt-cheap; not even at the Kapiolani College Farmer’s Market, which surely is one of the best farmers markets in the US. My friend Jackie from the Iolani School  brought me to this fabulous Saturday morning market, where we shared a mouthwatering banh mi sandwich prepared by the chef-artisans from Pig & The Lady in Honolulu’s Chinatown. I used to shop weekly at the farmer’s market in Kapolei, on the Leeward side, where I could get a bag of live shrimp to freak out my children and turn into dinner that night.

Jackie and the famous banh mi sandwich

Oahu was once all about sugar farming. On the leeward side of the island, sugar barons recklessly sucked natural moisture from the earth to support their plantations, which wound up all closing down. A lot of people are stuck in the Wainae coast where these plantations were. Jobs are scarce and the ground is too poor too farm. While the windward side of the island has wetter land, there isn’t much space left for it. Typically “local” fruits and vegetables come from other islands in the Hawaiian chain.

This is great, because most food in Oahu’s supermarkets is shipped or flown the 2500 miles from California and beyond. You can see the distance in the indifferent shine and taste of Red Delicious apples. They don’t even taste like apples. But why eat such things when there are local oranges with an interesting green skin? Apple-bananas? Papayas, passionfruit, pineapple and mangoes?

So sweet, so cold, so ripe! Papaya at Tango Contemporary Cafe

This sumptuous, perfectly ripe papaya at Tango Contemporary Cafe was one of the best I’d ever eaten. The other great papaya was a takeaway item from Good Earth, a small organic grocery chain  introduced to me by my friend. Karen helped me pick the perfect local papaya, apple-bananas and oranges to bring back to my fridge at LCC’s hotel, Hyatt Hawaiian Village.

I went bananas for the banana varieties at Good Earth

During the time I stayed in Waikiki, my evening walks made me discover the outdoor farmers’ and chefs’ markets that run Monday through Saturday evenings at either Kings Village Shopping Center or the Hyatt Regency Hotel. On site I devoured delicious pad thai and crisply fried Chinese dumplings, and I set myself up for the next day with luscious green salads and containers of fresh-sliced local fruit. I also bought colorful Hawaiian sea salt smoked with different flavorings that I use on a daily basis in Baltimore.

King’s Village evening farmers’ market in Waikiki

Hawaii’s chefs are working hard to bring local produce, meat and fish into their restaurants. In 1991, 12 chefs committed to developing a new Hawaii Regional Cuisine. The goal was to help local farmers and fishermen grow delicious, sustainable foods that would be the centerpiece of hotel and restaurant fare. These chefs have prospered, and their mission has been supported by so many other cooks. This year, I noticed almost every restaurant and hotel menu boasted about serving locavore or Hawaiian regional food.

The genuine HRC came onto my plate at the restaurants I’m about to describe.

One night I went to Honolulu’s artistic district known as SALT to eat a Peter Merriman restaurant called Moku Kitchen. Led by my intrepid gourmet friend Jackie, we enjoyed a pizza topped with wild Hamakua mushrooms and fresh herbs. I sampled a chopped poke appetizer of local ahi tuna mixed with shoyu and ginger, and tiny tacos filled with roasted bulgogi pork and crisp raw vegetables. A high point were the dumplings stuffed with pumpkin, spinach and chèvre. The small plates were so intensely tasteful that we finished them up, but had no room for dessert. It’s always hard to walk away from a great restaurant without tasting dessert, but it would have been too much!

Goofy’s is a casual cafe on top of a beach goods shop

Goofy’s is a tiny second story restaurant just outside the Hilton Hawaiian Village. A long line of people is usually waiting outside its doors. Many of them are Japanese tourists who have read about Goofy’s in guidebooks and have come for the “local first, organic whenever possible” casual gourmet cuisine. It’s a peaceable wait in line, because the weather’s so pleasant.

Susan Spann and I walked over to Goofy’s for a quick lunch on Sunday. I got a bibimbap bowl with an egg on top and she went for the loco moco, which is what I’d call a heritage Hawaiian dish: the kind of recipe you’ll find in the definitive food memoir/recipe book, The Food of Paradise by Rachel Laudan. Loco moco is a garlic-and-onion flavored beef patty atop a scoop of moist fried rice that floats in a sumptuous meat gravy. And why not put an egg on top?

Bibimbap bowl mixes Korea and Hawaii at Goofy’s

Fusion’s scrambled my brain. I think I’m going to try the loco moco concept at home, but do it vegetarian. I’ll keep the sunny-side up egg, but substitute leftover vegetable paella for the fried rice, and use sambar, a spicy Indian vegetable soup, for the meat gravy. Is that a travesty?

Goofy’s was so good I went back with my friend Vallery a few hours later for dinner. I wanted to try a dish that had sounded enticing: green spaghetti. The pasta was tossed with a pesto made from local green herbs and macadamia nuts. It was as good as it sounded.

One of my favorite restaurant discoveries this time was the Tango Contemporary Cafe at the Queen Street and Ala Moana Boulevard intersection. It’s owned by a Finnish chef who participates in the Hawaiian Island Chefs group supporting sustainable local agriculture, aquaculture and education. One cafe breakfast specialty, Pytt-i-panna, translates to “stuff in a pan” and offers variations with a lot of vegetables and meats, including loco moco beef and smoked salmon. I decided to go for the vegetarian version: a nicely browned hash of grilled vegetables with spinach, kale and tomatoes, topped with you-guessed-it.

Vegetable pytt-i-panna at Tango Contemporary Cafe

I breakfasted at Tango one Sunday morning and found almost 20 people waiting for the 8 am opening. I was seated near a Japanese couple who ordered the regular pancakes with maple syrup. Twenty minutes later, my order for Swedish pancakes with fresh fruit, berry compote and whipped cream arrived at my table. The Japanese man called over the waitress and told her she had brought him the wrong dish. He preferred the pancakes that I had, which were ever so petite and enticing. Of course, he had not specified Swedish pancakes. Yet with utmost courtesy, the waitress brought him his request.

Swedish pancake platter at Tango Contemporary Cafe

Some restaurants aren’t being buzzed about, but continue to reward eaters. Quite a few of them are in Chinatown. Consider Duc’s Bistro, where classic Vietnamese ingredients combine with meat and fish and vegetables prepared with French techniques. Duc’s is a favored spot for locals out for a quiet, elegant, and delicious meal, and the fish I had there was delicious.

Duc’s window beckons in Chinatown

Duc’s takes Asian ingredients and molds them with French elegance

On the old favorites trail, I went with with my new friend Diana to Little Village Noodle House. This is an inexpensive Szechuan Chinese restaurant that played a stake-out role in my Hawaii mystery novel, Shimura Trouble. I always get the crispy green onion pancakes pictured below. This savory vegetarian dish always surprises me with its similarity to a fried Indian paratha bread. Of course, China and India aren’t that far apart. And as Hawaii teaches us, you may as well take influences from all around the world, mix them loco moco, and offer with a dash of aloha (peace).