Archive for food

Milano, Milano!

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I send greetings from the north of Italy, where Christmas lights are twinkling and it’s time to buy panettone.

It was a grand surprise a few months ago, when my Italian publisher, Neri Pozza, share an invitation to be a literary guest at Festival In Noir, an international festival for crime writers and film makers in Milan and Lake Como. The proposed four-day visit would involve connecting with festivalgoers, as well as giving interviews to the Italian press about La Vedove di Malabar Hill (in English: The Widows of Malabar Hill).

Allora! (As Aziz Ansari taught me to say in Master of None).

I have never been to Italy, but have dreamed of visiting since I was ten years old and first ate spaghetti carbonara. My interest only grew as I grew older and discovered neorealist cinema, cappuccino, Italian fashion designers, other popular representations of the best in Italian taste. I fired back an affirmative email to Neri Pozza, and off I flew—arriving on a sunny, cold Monday morning in early December.

After I’d checked into the marvelous Hotel De la Ville, just a short walk from the famous 14th-century Duomo Cathedral of Milano, I couldn’t believe what a sweet spot I’d landed in. But I was exhausted. I transferred a stunning welcome bouquet of roses from the festival into cool water, and then I slid into a hot bath.

I woke up two hours later, and it was dusk. I left the hotel and strolled nearby streets, taking in a grand city where historical architecture and holiday light displays made a beautiful combination.

That first night in Italy, Giuseppe Russo, the director of Neri Pozza publishing, and Daniela Pagani, communications/publicity head for NP, led me through the beautiful streets to dinner at Ristorante La Brisas, where I tasted Italian haute cuisine: pork with braised greens, a salad with cod and vegetables, a rhubarb and raspberry tart. So sophisticated and yummy.

The next morning, Tuesday, my real Italian job started. I set an alarm to wake up in time for breakfast and a quick blow-out at a salon across the street from the hotel—where I spied another writer doing the same. All morning and afternoon was filled press interviews mastered  with the help of Daniela and simultaneous translator Sarah Cuminetti.

There were straight interviews with note-taking for people who wrote for newspapers and magazines, and some very interesting permutations, like the radio host who asked Sarah a question, which she then translated for me. I spoke my answer in English over the phone, and then Sarah took the phone and recorded her translation. How the producers will put it together I can’t imagine, but he did say he was happy with the sounds of our voices. We also had plenty of breaks which included macchiato and an especially delicious pastry sweeping the international landscape called a krapfen.

If you don’t like reading about food, now’s the time to check out.

More talking the rest of the morning and then lunch with my Neri Pozza editor, Sabine Schultz. She is from Germany but speaks Italian and English fluently. What did I taste this time? Arancini balls of rice stuffed with ragu—and a green salad. Sabine and Sarah taught me how to dress my own salad with salt, some shakes of balsamic vinegar, and olive oil. It turned out pretty well.

Toward the end of the afternoon I had an interview with Mirko Giacchetti of Milano Nera magazine, which focuses on crime and thrillers. Mirko asked what I’d say if I was back in the 1920s and spending time over a meal with Perveen Mistry (my series heroine). l realized that the two of us would chatter about our favorite Indian dishes, and then Perveen would probably confess she hated cooking. And then, I would try to get to the meat of things: how Perveen could make her professional dreams come true.

Tuesday rounded out with an interview with Italian journalist John Vignola at a bookstore, Libreria Feltrinelli Duomo, which is underneath a grand outdoor space, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II. I was delighted that an Instagram friend whom I had invited after she commented on the Italian edition actually came to the event. It was rather crazy to have two people talking at once—John and another person doing simultaneous translation—but I made it. And the Italians who came to get their books signed had the most beautiful names. Paola, Flavia, Gabriella… they deserve their own book.

Tuesday night, the visiting writers and filmmakers feasted on beef slow cooked in Barolo, drank Pinot Noir, and mulled over a choice of gelatos and sorbets for dessert.

After tonight, there are two more days of press interviews, a panel about British mysteries at the university and very likely more delicious fare—both literary and on the plate.

A Mushrooming Obsession

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

After we had a dead elm tree cut down last year, little white mushrooms sprang up on the wood-flecked ground.  I was nervous because we had just taken in a Yorkshire Terrier puppy with an appreciation for organic material. Daisy snuffles up berries, pods, pinecones and black walnuts faster than I can stop her. But for some reason, she stayed away from the tiny white mushrooms, which I think might be Chlorophyllium Molybdites, the Green Spored Parasol, a poisonous mushroom that looks like a white button mushroom.

But Daisy ignored the mushrooms, just as I don’t see rabbits, birds and squirrels eating them. Somehow they must have a genetic aversion. It isn’t that way for people. My eyes tell me that the mushrooms in my garden are beautiful as the ones at a high end grocery. I look at such mushrooms and imagine them sautéed in butter.

Mushrooms have power: both for the bad and the good. Over the winter, I did some reading and learned that the oyster, enoki, maitake and shiitake mushrooms are taken by patients to fight tumors. And there’s one very powerful Chinese mushroom, the Red Reishi, that has been used to treat many diseases, including cancer.

What about the small wrinkled cone-headed mushrooms that grow wild in the United States called the morel? I adore the morels that grow plentifully in the upper Midwest and are hand-collected in the wild and sold in co-ops. However, I’ve learned there’s a “false morel” that looks just like it that’s poisonous. Umm….

And let’s be realistic. Morels are too pricy to be eaten more than a few times a year. However,  an 8-ounce container of local oyster, and white beech and brown beech mushrooms (also known as bunapi and bunashimeji) is about $5.99 at the local organic grocery in my neighborhood. If I get up early enough on the weekend, I can buy a similar portion of fresh maitake, fan mushrooms, chantarelles and shiitakes for $5 at the farmer’s market. I cradle all these unwashed mushrooms in a cotton bag that stays in the refrigerator. They stay happy and resist turning slimy for up to two weeks—though I’ve usually finished them well before that time.

As spring arrives, I realized that mushrooms have nudged themselves into becoming 2018’s food of choice. I’ve cooked a lot of them, and I’ve savored truffles twice—both in a truffle mayonnaise on chips at Charleston Restaurant in Baltimore, and in the truffle-stuffed ravioli at the Fearrington Village Inn in North Carolina. These are the splurgiest, most umami-laden mushrooms around, reputedly costing $2800-3200 a pound, if you get the white ones. But a little goes a long way, because the flavor is so tremendous.

Making a deep dive into a “food of the year” has become a habit for me. When I was researching India’s Parsi community in 2016, I found myself cooking more eggs in Parsi manner, often poached atop vegetables. This was a fantastic and easy food to focus on.

2017’s food of the year was quinoa, because I finally learned to make it taste good, and it went into soups, salads, and as a rice substitute. In 2009 it was homemade bread (I gave up that practice, never quite mastering it, and knowing that I didn’t want to eat bread twice daily to use it up).

I have a head start on the mushroom game because I’ve been cooking mushrooms  for years. Three out of four members of our family like them (not a bad ratio considering they are “fungi”). One of our favorite family dishes for many years was the mushroom stroganoff from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, but that calls for ordinary large white mushrooms. We were happy in the past, but I think cut-up oyster mushrooms are going to vault the dish to the stratosphere. The mushroom risotto recipe I like comes from The New Vegetarian Epicure, and its author, Anna Thomas, isn’t playing. She calls for a mix of morels, porcini and shiitake, as well as dried porcini as a flavor builder.

You don’t need a cookbook to make a fantastic mushroom dish. Sauté them with onion and add lightly beaten eggs for an incomparable scramble. Garam masala or curry powder is the final touch.

For lunch, I love to make a quick Asian noodle soup, starting with sautéed onion, ginger and enoki mushrooms, and throwing in either vegetable, chicken, or beef stock. A spoonful of white miso goes in along with a little chopped raw spinach or bok choy. That last bit cooks two minutes and then I ladle in a bowl with scallions on top.

Or how about a mushroom gnocchi bowl for supper that’s ready in less than thirty minutes? Start with a cup of mixed specialty mushrooms such as shimeji and maitake, all broken apart into medium sized pieces; a quarter cup of chopped onion; two minced garlic cloves. Sauté in butter and olive oil until lightly brown and then pour in 4 cups of any vegetable stock. Simmer ten minutes and then throw in potato gnocchi from the store and 1/3 cup of frozen green peas. The gnocchi will be tender in about 3 minutes; you’ll know when they rise to the top. Toss minced parsley on top, if you are fancy, and ladle it into bowls.

I don’t know that eating small mushrooms with a grand reputation will save me from disease. But I eat them several times a week now. I might even try growing them. I’m eyeing an  “organic mushroom farm” I saw at Mom’s Market. The final frontier would be taking a mushroom walk with a forager, but after what I’ve read about evil lookalikes springing up next to morels and chanterelles, I’m not sure it’s worth the risk.

Nuts to Christmas

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Mixed families often double their holidays. Which means the culinary options are rather excellent.

Take Christmas.

I grew up the daughter of a German mother who still makes hundreds of beautiful cookies each year. I have learned to bake some of these cookies, but I can’t hold a candle to Mom. My father is from India, where most people don’t celebrate Christmas, and the majority of homes don’t have ovens. A typical Christmas dinner dish for us, growing up, was chicken biryani.

But I believe there is one Indian delicacy with the power to satisfy like a cookie can. This treat is crunchy, sweet, salty and as spicy as you’d like. I call it Masala Nuts.

In India, you’ll find a man on a street in any village or town or city roasting nuts in a big steel pot set over a wood fire. The roasted nuts are tossed with spices and a bit of sugar. Everything’s poured into a small paper holder and handed off to the salivating customer.

In the West, you can visit a South Asian store and buy a factory made “hot mix” coated with heavy spices, oils and preservatives. They’re not terrible—but they’re nothing like the real masala nuts.

At Christmas, I’ve begun to make my own spiced nuts. Savory nuts are welcomed by people who don’t want as much sugar as a cookie or cake contains. Pistachios, almonds, walnuts and their near cousins are recommended anti-inflammatory foods high in good fats. They are great at cocktail parties and also used anywhere else you’d put very special nuts: a salad, oatmeal, and rice pilaf.

There are probably as many recipes for spiced nuts as there once were princely kingdoms in India. The diversity of nuts must be credited to Moghul invaders of the 15th century, who brought their plants and culinary traditions. Nuts such as almonds, pistachios and cashews began decorating rice dishes and were incorporated into curries and sweets and even beverages. Who knows if the royal couple in this small painting I bought in Rajasthan are sharing a goblet of wine? It could also be a creamy punch with ground almonds or pistachios.

The ultimate joy of making masala nuts is they don’t take a lot of time during a busy holiday season. I can whip up seven gift-sized portions of spiced nuts in about 45 minutes if I use a microwave.

Yes, a microwave.  The genesis of my spiced nuts comes from Julie Sahni’s 1990 cookbook, Moghul Microwave. The book has 5 different recipes for candied or roasted spiced nuts. In the 25 years I’ve had the book, I’ve found one recipe that is my favorite, and I’ve tweaked it a little bit. For instance, I’m not a fan of kala namak (black salt), so I skip it in my version. This year, I threw some chia seeds into the dry spice rub. Chia seeds have no flavor, but they  have a slight crunch that reminds me of kalonji seeds—Indian black onion seeds. And I like adding more Omega 3 fatty acids to make up for the fact there is a bit of sugar coating the nuts.

Happy holidays!

Spiced Mixed Nuts (inspired by Julie Sahni)

2 cups (10 ounces) shelled raw whole unsalted mixed nuts such as pistachios, unblanched almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, pecans, pine nuts (I use 3 to 4 varieties per recipe)
1 tablespoon ground cumin (I roast the seeds before grinding, but that’s optional)
½ teaspoon ground fennel seeds
1-2 teaspoons of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon amchur (*dry mango powder sold in Indian stores. See headnote for an easy lemon juice substitution)
¼ teaspoon chia seeds (optional)
½ cup of sugar
1-2 teaspoons kosher salt, depending on taste
1/3 cup water

*If you can’t find amchur, substitute 2 teaspoons of fresh lemon juice. Combine the lemon juice with the water, rather than the dry spice rub.

  1. Arrange nuts so they lie flat on a microwave-safe pie plate. Roast uncovered for 3 minutes 30 seconds, or until the nuts are lightly browned and puffed. You can stir them once during the process. Take out of the microwave and let them stand.
  2. Mix all the spices in a small bowl and reserve this dry spice rub for later use.
  3. Mix the water, sugar and optional lemon juice on a glass or ceramic pie plate or casserole dish. Cook uncovered for 2 minutes 40 seconds, stopping the microwave to stir twice. You will end up with a thick syrup.
  4. Add in the nuts and continue cooking uncovered for 45 seconds to one minute, or until most of the syrup is absorbed into nuts.
  5. Transfer nuts to a sieve held over a sink and drain off the excess syrup. Spread nuts onto a cookie sheet. Sprinkle spice rub a little at a time over the nuts and mix, turning and tossing, until nuts have an even coating of the masala.
  6. Keep stored in an airtight tin for up to six weeks, in fridge for six months, and for a year in the freezer.

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.

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

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).

Gochujang Glory

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I’ve had a little too much Thai, Indian and Vietnamese restaurant food lately. Even good food can become boring. Looking for another Asian taste, I decided to go after the obvious: Korean food.

Fortunately, there are a lot of Korean immigrants around Baltimore. I’ve dined at places ranging from multi-starred restaurants in the suburbs to the casual Korean take-out counter at R House, the great new food hall in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood. This has been a fun project.

I’ve noticed that in almost every dish, a special flavor tickled my tastebuds. That is the taste of gochujang.

BeBim at R House does fast casual Korean

I first tasted gochujang in the delicious marinated grilled meat dish called bulgogi. It gives the robust red color and flavor to Korean stew dishes known as jigae and is also stirred up and served as a condiment.

The elevator pitch for gochujang is “a cross between miso paste and Asian chili sauce.” But this paste is not nosebud-clearing spiky-hot like Sriracha sauce, another favorite condiment of mine. Gochujang has a good, deep kind of hot and a complex, almost-meaty dimension foodies call umami.

Watch a short video of how to make gorgeous gochujang at http://www.maangchi.com/recipe/gochujang

Gochujang has become buzzy in the West for the last five years, although it dates back to at least the sixteenth century in Korea. Someone clever took the mellow Korean chili known as gochu, dried it, and crushed it. This was mixed with powdered rice, powdered fermented dried soybeans, sprouted barley and salt. Fresh gochujang paste is stored in a ceramic crock outdoors for six months before eating. The fermentation creates the healthy lactobacillus to support healthy digestion; and the chili element within the food inhibits spoilage. Chilies contain capsicum, which some say helps fight obesity.  In any case, gochujang has some other great nutrients: Vitamin B2, Vitamin C, protein and carotene. It tastes like heaven, but it isn’t junk food.

Korean purists still make gochujang by hand, just as people in Japan still make tofu and miso. Fortunately, there are a few potters interested in making the proper jars, which must be screened at the top to allow ventilation. It’s almost like the composting I’m trying to do in an old trashcan in my yard.

I wanted to get a gochujang fix the easy way. That meant shopping. I found many tubs of it on the shelf of the Asian supermarket a few miles from my house. After the gochujang tub opened, it needs to go into the refrigerator. I put it there while I pondered what to do next.

There were many choices. I can’t count the ways I’ve seen gochujang as an ingredient in non-Korean recipes, particularly as a drizzling sauce or mixed in with mayonnaise. One of the first things I did was make gochujang mayonnaise that was used for many purposes.

I also decided to put a spoonful of gochujang in the soy-stock mixture I use for vegetable stir-fry. A dish with Chinese origins was changed—and not for the worse!

While I was taking baby spoonfuls out of my pepper paste tub, the food people have crafted grand new recipes.

British cooking author and TV host Nigella Lawson blended Italy and Korea in her original recipe for Korean Calamari and then she blended India and Korea in Korean Keema.

Nigella’s Korean Calamari

Turkey and gochujang are a popular combination. I like the ingredients in Blogger Lemon Lime Lisa’s gochujang turkey meatballs which would be a great party hors d’oeuvre.

Here’s a great slideshow roundup of gochujang-flavored dishes from Bon Appetit.

Without realizing it, I used up my whole gochujang tub on silly little ideas. I wanted to do something big. One Saturday, I went shopping for a new container of gochujang and decided to lavish it on a small pork loin.

First, I browned the 3-lb. hunk of pork in a little oil. Then I added in 1/3 cup gochujang paste, 1/8 cup soy sauce, 1/8 cup of honey and ½ cup of chicken stock. I let the loin braise in the spicy potion for 8 hours, until cooked through and very soft. I took out the loin to rest and boiled down the remaining red-brown cooking liquid to make a velvety brown sauce. Okay, I apologize for the lack of photograph; when the pork was ready, I had no impulse control.

The pork loin was a bit too much for just my husband and me to eat. Still, it was excellent, from the first night, when it was presented like a roast with polenta on the side; to the next day’s lunch, when it went inside a tortilla wrap along with lettuce and radishes; to the grand finale two days later, soft tacos with fresh chopped vegetables.

By the end of my gochujang experiment, I wasn’t bored. I was filled by another of capsicum’s supposed benefits: euphoria.

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!