Archive for entertaining

Feasting for Malice

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Cooking up an auction dinner for Malice Domestic. The island is neat at this point!

Cooking up an auction dinner for Malice Domestic. The island is neat at this point!

I’m a regular participant at the friendly Malice Domestic convention held annually in Bethesda to celebrate traditional mysteries. Last year, at the convention auction, I decided to give more than a signed book. Having found that readers of diverse books are usually enthusiastic foodies, I offered to cook up a gourmet, multi-course Indian dinner for ten. It would be work, but going to a good cause: KEEN, Kids Enjoying Exercise Everywhere, a program offering movement opportunities for children with disabilities in the DC-MD-VA area.

Longtime convention friends Alan and Cheryl Leathers paid in the “high three figures” for the meal, even though they lived outside my delivery zone. The couple lives in Colorado. I’d said I could serve a dinner in a home in the Baltimore-Washington DC-Northern Virginia area. I was shocked they’d bought a gift they could not eat.

Malice Domestic Board, a couple of spouses, and me

Malice Domestic Board, a couple of spouses, and me

But the Leathers had a secret plan. They gifted the dinner to the Malice Board, a group of volunteers who do everything for the convention from literary programming to participant registration and meal planning.

Joni and Don Langevoort kindly hosted the meal in their spacious Vienna, Va. home that included a large dream kitchen with high quality cookware. I could prepare the meal at my home 60 miles away, and drive it in, doing the final touches there.

Beautiful table

Beautiful table

I had five months to plan the dinner, so it should have been a snap, right? I love making Indian food. The problem was, which of my 25 Indian cookbooks to use for the meal. Should I use home recipes? The Internet? Should there be a regional theme, and how much spice did I dare use for ten people with varying tastes, including one who’d never eaten Indian food before?

I went on a book research trip to India four weeks before the dinner, and eating there helped me put together a plan. I’d start with sev puri, a vegetarian chaat dish ( snack) that looks really pretty on a plate. The rest of the menu would be South Indian, which is not widely available at Indian restaurants and therefore could be interesting for my diners.

I decided to choose most dishes from Kerala, the fantastic state at India’s tip that is known for its religious diversity and a cuisine that includes meat, fish, and vegetables for most. My favorite Kerala dishes are seafood ones, so I chose to make a shrimp curry with coconut milk from Maya Kaimal’s 1997 cookbook, Curried Favors. I found one internet recipe for Tomato Pappu, a South Indian-style dal, and used my own non-recipe for the rice.

For a Saturday night dinner, I grocery shopped on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday morning. While I maintain that Indian cooking is easy, making one’s own coconut cilantro chutney and scratch masalas (spice mixtures) for multiple dishes takes time. I clocked my cooking hours at about fifteen, and I wouldn’t have made it the last day without the reassuring sound of an audiobook playing in the kitchen.

Here’s what I cooked:

Sev Puri. an appetizer with a crisp puri topped with spicy veggies, chutneys and chickpea crisps

Sev Puri, an appetizer with a crisp puri topped with spicy veggies, chutneys and chickpea crisps

Chicken Varlutharacha, a toasted coconut-onion-spice masala

Chicken Varlutharacha, a toasted coconut-onion-spice masala

Green bean thorn

Green bean thorn

Kerala-style chicken with coconut milk

Kerala-style chicken with coconut milk

Tomato Pappu, masoor dal cooked with tomatoes and curry leaves

Tomato Pappu, masoor dal cooked with tomatoes and curry leaves

My own simple rice pilau with green peas

My own simple rice pilau with green peas

We also ate fried paratha breads with the meal and dipped into lime and mango pickles and cucumber raita. Rasmalai was the only dish that broke the South Indian theme. It’s a sweet, milk-based dessert that is eaten all over India. I should have included a picture, but we ate it all up before I thought.

For beverages, I brought sparkling white wines and also a sparkling Shiraz that unfortunately exploded all the way up to the hosts’ ceiling! Nix on sparkling reds from this point forward.

We had a great time at the dinner, with the special excitement of a board member’s adorable 12-week-old daughter, and the Langevoorts’ dog and four cats. All in all, it was a feast to remember.

Another Excuse for a New Year’s Party!

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A welcoming Parsi gentleman I will always remember; India International Centre 1989

A welcoming Parsi gentleman I will always remember; India International Centre 1989

A few decades ago, when I was on a father-daughter trip to India, I came fact to face with my future.

Not my sweet husband (although plenty of people I met on that trip offered to find me one).

That fateful evening in March, 1989, I suddenly found myself in the midst of a party celebrating Navroze, or the Persian New Year, a major spiritual and social occurrence based on the spring equinox. Nowrooz, Navroz, Navroze, Naw-Ruz, Nowroz, and several other spellings all mean “New Day” in Persian. This is the date that changes slightly every year: when the length of sunlight equals night.

It is the start of the lunar calendar calculated by Persians about three thousand years ago. In those days, the state religion was Zoroastrianism. However, it seems that anyone whose ancestors spent time in Iran, whether Zoroastrian, Muslim, Baha’i or Kurdish, observes this new year. Some communities celebrate three days…others almost two weeks.

I knew none of this going in. That long ago evening at the India International Centre in New Delhi. I was strolling about, killing time until the dining hall opened and my father and I could get something to eat. I drew near a splendidly decorated pavilion.

Are they twins or just close sisters? Parsi girls at the 1989 Navroze celebration

Are they twins or just close sisters? Parsi girls at the 1989 Navroze celebration

I felt I were gazing into a magic world. Darling little girls wore white lace frocks, ladies were draped in luxurious saris and all the gentlemen were clad traditional white suits with unusual headgear (Later I learned these were lacquered turbans called fetahs). I admired the scene until a kindly elder  insisted I join them. I had my first rapturous taste of spicy, sophisticated Parsi food (Parsi transliterates to “Persian” and refers to the Zoroastrian immigrants who arrived in Gujarat starting in 600 AD).

My first taste of Parsi hospitality must have been auspicious, because many years later, I find myself revisiting the March New Year in fictional form. I’m currently writing a novel starring a Zoroastrian family in 1920s Bombay. Just last week I was writing about the rigorous house cleaning that before the New Year. There’s a lot to it!

Perzen Patel, a Parsi cuisine expert in Mumbai, with her fabulous pantry

Perzen Patel, a Parsi cuisine expert in Mumbai, with her fabulous pantry

My friend Perzen Patel, aka the Bawi Bride, is a Parsi caterer and food blogger in Mumbai. For Perzen, the Persian New Year means a lot of family visiting and a tremendous amount of cooking for friends and customers. Several weeks before the holiday, she sent this enticing email to her friends and blog followers, and customers.

This year to bring in Navroze I thought we’d go the extra mile and really create a menu that is beyond the ordinary. So, I’ve put my thinking cap on and planned a lovely special that you can avail any day from Saturday 19 – Monday 21 March.

Our menu is as follows:

  • Kheema Pattice—savory mashed potato and lamb patties
  • Badam Malai Chicken Pulao—a savory rice pilaf studded with chicken cooked in cream with almonds
  • Masala ni Dar—spicy lentils
  • Kid Gosht—lamb curry
  • Patra ma Prawns—prawns steam-cooked in banana leaves
  • Lagan nu Custard—sweet baked pudding garnished with raisins and cashews

All of this yummy food for the special price of ₹1550 per plate including delivery with each plate as a whole enough for two people.

Translation: that’s about $25 for a New Year’s feast for two! If you’re curious, try Perzen’s custard recipe highlighted above or the many delicious home recipes on the Bawi Bride website.

All these elements appear on a Nawroz table

All these elements appear on a Nawroz table

Perzen says that if the celebratory Navroze meal is home-cooked (which is typical), at least one fish dish would be included for good luck. There might also be a nougat sweet, Gaz, imported from Iran. Perzen’s favorite non-culinary part of the holiday is the Haft Seen table laid out with seven lucky edibles that start with the “S” sound in Persian. These range from sumac to apple and garlic and herbs. A key item on the table is the mirror,  placed there so visiting relatives can look into it and reflect on their past year and any blessings.

The Baltimore Naw-Ruz buffet

The Baltimore Naw-Ruz buffet

A Baltimore friend, Sheila Mohajer Hofert, is a Baha’i who fled Iran with her family in the early 1980s. The Baha’i start their New Year at approximately the same time as Zoroastrians and Iranian-origin Muslims. One difference is the Baha’i fast from sunrise to sunset for the last 19 days before Naw-Ruz. Sheila says the fasting  makes one “more understanding of the people who are hungry in the world—and to become more aware of our bodies and our emotions. For example, working on treating others kindly when you personally don’t feel very well.”

This year, on March 19, more than 200 Baha’is and their friends gathered to enjoy food, song, and prayers.

I also asked Sheila her favorite aspect of Naw-Ruz. She wrote: “As winter gradually fades away and the paleness of the world is replaced with fresh colors and fragrance, it brings with the promise of the new day. It remind me of he cyclic nature of our universe and the cyclic nature of our lives, which are constantly filled with crises, followed by victory.”

Young Musicians at the Baha'i Naw-Ruz event

Young Musicians at the Baha’i Naw-Ruz event

Life will always get better. Naw-Ruz Mubarak!

Love, Indo-American Style

At the India-California wedding

Last weekend I took a long flight with my daughter to a fabulous Indian family wedding with all the bells and whistles. It was a four-day celebration. Although we missed the first night’s cocktail party, we rolled in the next night for the sangeet, a dance party with live Indian music, henna tattoos, a costume jewelry bazaar, and a delicious buffet of authentic Indian dishes I’ve never seen in restaurants. A day of family and friends socializing and grand rehearsal dinner followed. On the penultimate day, bhangra-bopping friends and relatives surrounded the brocade-coated groom who rode across the hotel lawn on a white horse with with golden hoofs. Garlands of roses and marigolds wilted in ninety-degree temperatures, but the guests endured with parasols and fans. In the middle of the Hindu rites, waiters discreetly served the seated guests saucers of sherbet.

There was no scandal or disruption. The bride and groom’s families were both thrilled with the young couple’s moral character, accomplishments, and commitment to each other.
In short–it was like the best kind of wedding out of an upbeat Indian film. But despite the heat and background music, the setting was not the New Delhi of Monsoon Wedding or the Amritsar of Bride and Prejudice. It was a luxury hotel just outside Los Angeles.

Favorite wedding film, Bride and Prejudice

On the wedding ceremony morning, the Sri Lankan hair stylist who was spraying my hair into a suitable design was stunned that I’d never been to a South Asian wedding before. I explained this was because our family settled in the U.S. during the 1960s, a time when Indian immigrants were mostly scientists and engineers. Only in the last twenty years have thousands of Indians with an entrepreneurial bent settled in the United States, giving rise to full-scale Indian weddings.

In my childhood, we shopped for basmati rice and dal at a Middle-Eastern store, because there was no such thing as the South Asian specialty grocer. My sisters and I were excited to study bharatnatyam, the classical dance, but the classes held in an urban park community center were discontinued for lack of numbers. Whenever the Indian professor families in our area wanted to celebrate an Indian religious holiday, they rented space from a Catholic students’ organization. Not enough affluent Indian families had arrived yet to enable the funding of this era’s massive gurdwaras, temples and mosques.

Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, Built in 1998

Not only are the numbers of Indian cultural centers growing, so is the blending with America. On Sundays, the New York Times always has announcements of young Indian-Americans marrying outside their religion and race. In Los Angeles, the Protestant American groom’s family even wore the formal embroidered silk clothing the bride’s mother had bought for them in Bombay—as well as the nine bridesmaids and seven groomsmen. They performed Indian dances at the sangeet and at the ceremony, listened attentively to the Sanskrit prayers, which the Hindu priest translated into English, so everyone would understand.

As I sat under the California sun with the bride’s family, it seemed to me that Anglo-Indian weddings have come full circle. In the 1600s, When the bachelor officers of the British, Dutch and Portuguese East India companies arrived in India, their most important contacts were women. Young Indian women, who lived with them and taught them the language and the manners they needed to succeed in their specific part of the subcontinent, were sometimes called Sleeping Dictionaries because they were both bedmates and language teachers. Many of the bachelor officers fell in love and married their companions, living completely in the manner of Indian aristocrats. William Dalrymple’s historical account of such people,

White Mughals by William Dalrymple

White Mughals, explains this lifestyle with fascinating detail. Many of the Anglo-Indian sons born of such parents in India were sent to England for higher education, so they could have good careers, and the daughters were married off to prominent English colonials.

But as British still living in England got wind of these multi-cultural marriages, they disapproved. A campaign arose to send English girls in their late teens and twenties to find husbands among the East India company men. Such young ladies were teasingly called the Fishing Fleet, and most of them did land catches of some sort. This social engineering dramatically raised the numbers of British families living in India. Now, the growing Anglo-Indian society was suddenly declasse. The British couldn’t knowingly socialize with Anglo-Indians,let alone continue the custom of interracial marriage. And Anglo-Indians were similarly disparaged by the Indian community, who’d taken note that they’d adopted the language, clothing, and religion of the colonists, and enjoyed the benefit of jobs set aside only for them in the Indian Railways.

After World War II ended in Britain’s favor, its government finally granted independence to India. From 1947 onward, many Anglo-Indians left India to resettle in Britain and Canada. And Indians too had the chance to travel for higher education and jobs. But prejudice was there. It was sometimes hard for Indian students to find landlords willing to rent to Indians, and mixed-race couples were often targets of verbal insults.

Given the unpredictable situation in the U.K., my parents–a European and an Indian in a mixed marriage–crossed the Atlantic, seeking a home where their daughters would hopefully not face that kind of discrimination. And while I do have some hurtful experiences in my past, what is more powerful is my wonder at the number of non-Indians around me wearing bindis on their foreheads and mehndi on their hands, who are mixing India into all kinds of parties and celebrations, just for the fun of it.

Marjorie and Me

The other weekend, I was cranky and knew I needed a temporary getaway from my family. So I got in the car on a hot July morning and drove south to DC, savoring Saturday’s lack of traffic.

Ever since I moved back to the Mid-Atlantic, I’ve longed to tour Hillwood, the 1920s Georgian mansion of Marjorie Merriweather Post, an heiress and businesswoman who parlayed her father’s Postum Cereal Company into the prepared food empire known today as General Mills. Right now, there’s a special exhibition at Hillwood called “Living Artfully: At Home with Marjorie Merriiweather Post,” and what caught my interest is that

Mrs Marjorie Merriweather Post

this four-times divorced grande dame decided to fix up a mansion when she was 68.

This is where I feel a kinship, having bought an 1897 Victorian summer cottage in my late 40s, with my two children likely leaving the nest within a few years. Sometimes, the decision to invest in this 5000-square foot house with four porches battling carpenter bees does not seem practical. Mrs. Post’s decision wasn’t either–after all, she already owned a massive Park Avenue apartment, Mar-A-Lago in Florida and a luxurious camp in the Adirondacks. As I pulled in through the handsome gates, I imagined the pull of 25 acres of land, which, with the steamy DC/Baltimore climate, could support a lot of lovely flowers, trees and shrubs. I have a bit less than 1 acre–and the condition is currently very rough. However, I’m thrilled to have a struggling patch you could call cutting garden with some of the same plants (coneflowers, roses, rudbeckia) that are in the Hillwood cutting garden. Mrs. Post also stocked greenhouses with orchids and all manner of exotics so she would always be able to show off lovely arrangements at her glittering dinner parties.

Dinner is another enthusiasm that we share. Mrs. Post entertained regularly, and just last night I had a neighborhood gathering of around 40–a supposed “happy hour” that lasted until almost ten p.m.–and tonight Tony and I are cooking dinner for the family of one of our children’s friends, lively people we’ve been wanting to know better.

It sometimes seems impossible to get a chance to eat and drink with all the interesting people in this city, and our DC and suburban Maryland and Virginia friends, too. But there are ways to organize, Merriweather Post Style. Mrs. Post kept a book filled with names and contact information for hundreds of prominent people of her era, including designated bachelors (for me, it’s “all the single ladies”). For her, diversity of guests might mean that in addition to DC political and embassy friends, she might invite an Abell millionaire to drive in from Baltimore! At our house, we also seek a wide range of people, not just from the same neighborhood, and with many ages and cultural backgrounds. And I don’t keep a lovely book of typed names to hunt for guests, either. I click into my email and see who comes up.

Mrs. Post loved decorating and collecting, and her house is filled with Louis XVI furniture, Russian Faberge porcelain, and gorgeous parquet floors.

Grand entry at Hillwood House

For this reason, her butlers enforced a rule for any guests with high heels to wear plastic heel caps. Here I am in utter sympathy, having had to refinish our soft pine floors TWICE since moving in. I say, Leave Your Muddy Sneakers and Dusty Sports Cleats at the Door.

When it came to food, Hillwood’s talented cooks worked for days in a gigantic kitchen making elegant meals, but its owner made sure to always include some General Foods favorites, like Jell-O. Not even the kids will eat Jell-O at my house, but I am loyal to Bird’s Custard Powder, which is a component of whatever fruit trifle I’m making (my go-to dessert). I fear the biggest difference between our entertaining styles is most apparent after dinner. Mrs. Post’s staff (she was too polite to say ‘servants’) cleaned up. I believe the docent said more than 100 people worked at Hillwood. If I’m lucky, my clean-up crew will include a kid, a husband, and a very kind guest or two.

I drove home from Hillwood, my appetite for antiques, gardens and dreaming sated. I opened the ragged screened door leading to our half-renovated estate. My husband was slicing up my favorite vegetable, the eggplant, and shaping hamburgers for our son.

Our house will never be a Hillwood, but I am crazy about the weekend chef.