Archive for cooking

Chocolate, Sourdough, and Other Blessings

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

MFK Fisher in France

MFK Fisher in France

A few weeks into the pandemic, a big bang broke this stillness of a stay-at-home Saturday afternoon.

An electric fuse had blown, which meant the third floor had no lights, and the wi-fi was down as well.

When I say a fuse was blown, I don’t mean a modern one made of steel that’s neatly labeled. We have those fuses in the basement. The fuse that blew was antique, the kind of curiosity no contemporary electrician would have on hand.

Our mercurial fuses

My husband called around to a couple of historic neighborhood hardware shops. The second store, Falkenhan’s Hardware, still had such early 20th century fuses in stock. Tony got six of them for ten dollars, and an hour later, he screwed in the new fuse while I kept my fingers crossed. Once again lights shone, fans whirred, and a wi-fi signal allowed us to keep going with our work.

The famous King Arthur pizza!

We are now solving problems with our own hands. In my neighborhood, several homeowners are up on their roofs, replacing shingles and painting the porch trim. And we are gardening like gangbusters. Seed companies and nurseries have an estimated 300-plus percentage rise in business. The green proof is visible in raised beds, garden boxes, and potted plants growing everywhere you look. 2020 is the best year for gardening, ever.

My garden box with lettuces

And while I don’t peer through people’s windows, I suspect many more people are cooking, some for the first time in their lives. Fortunately, newspaper websites abound with cheerful instruction, as do websites like Kitchn, Food52, and Bon Appetit, and King Arthur. Six times already I’ve baked King Arthur Flour’s Recipe of 2020, a deep dish cheese pizza that involves making pizza dough yourself and setting it up for a no-fail rise by using a cast iron frying pan. King Arthur is also the go-to spot for fledgling sourdough bakers, and those who use sourdough discards to thriftily make more food, like the sourdough-chocolate cake below.

A sourdough chocolate cake!

I leave no stone unturned, when it comes to culinary thrift. Before I got my garden box going, I harvested dandelion leaves and wild onion from my garden. I freeze vegetable scraps, chicken bones, and shrimp shells to make different stocks. In fact, I’ve become such an old-fashioned homemaker that I’m freezing cut-off pieces of fat to melt down into lard.

I can stay out of the stores because I’ve found local farmers who sell to customers directly—not just at farmers’ markets, but by porch delivery, the US mail, or curbside pickup. And within the city, at least four restaurants I know are not just offering takeout, but regular  ingredients to home cooks.

Here in Baltimore, curbside pickup from my local restaurant, La Cuchara, means signing up online a day ahead for what they can order in for us from their farmers and food distributors.  On the luxurious side, these curbside pickups have included fresh Chesapeake Bay oysters and diver scallops and rockfish. More goodies have been local strawberries and turnips, garlic ramps, and morels, oyster and porcini mushrooms: all priced at, or slightly below, regular grocery prices. I’ve adjusted to buying what the farmers and restaurants can provide—blocks of butter rather than sticks, and takeout containers of olive oil and canola that I funnel into clean, recycled bottles at home.

Local kohlrabi and sugar snap peas

I wonder how long restaurants will keep going with the marketplace model. The truth of it is, I’d rather swing by a restaurant and open my trunk than enter the maelstrom of a grocery store, where I cannot count on all patrons being masked.

I also experiment with foods that arrives weekly in a Community-Supported-Agriculture (CSA) bag: things like kohlrabi, tatsoi, and many kinds of lettuce. The CSA movement across the United States was started by small farmers who want to sell their harvest to customers who’ve committed at the season’s beginning to paying them for four to six months’ worth of vegetables, fruits, and other products.

And what if the CSA throws more collards and kale into the bag than the Masseys can handle? It’s easy to drop off extra greens or asparagus or lettuce to someone who needs it. Food is so precious now. One of the stories I like best is that of Michelle Brenner, a furloughed worker in Washington. During this pandemic, she got a new name: The Lasagna Lady, after baking and donating more than 1200 large pans of lasagna.

My mother was born in Germany during the war years. As long as I’ve known her, she has carried a small bar of good chocolate in her purse and kept an ever-changing assortment of chocolate bars and boxes in the house. All this chocolate—even though I rarely have seen her eat more than one square. The chocolate is for giving to others. She says having it in her bag is a legacy of growing up as a child of war. With the pandemic, I’m starting to understand this better. While chocolate’s sugar is an energy and mood boost—instant food that keeps well—it’s much more. Emotionally, holding onto something like chocolate is a reminder that we are safe, and we still have treats to enjoy.

World War II food reminds me of the legendary Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. Best known as MFK Fisher, Mary Frances was born in 1908 and became a legendary cook and writer during a time that gourmet food was a man’s business.

My first taste of her writing was The Gastronomical Me, witty and wonderful essays about her life as a young bride discovering 1930s France through its food. Her adventures made me eager to start my own writing life overseas. And with the help of my husband, that wonderful amateur electrician, all that did come to pass in Japan in the early 1990s.

One of Mrs. Fisher’s greatest works was written and published during World War II. It’s a book of essays and recipes called How To Cook a Wolf. The grim title is a play on words referring to finishing off fear, and also satisfying one’s appetite when there’s little available to eat. Although my assumptions could be wrong; it has a graphic chapter on cooking small animals such as “hare” and pigeons.

Mrs. Fisher believed that while the war was terrible, it also shook people into the right frame of mind. Here’s a bit that amused me, especially because of the COVID-19 sourdough boom.

“Lastly, perhaps because of the very propaganda that seems so contradictory, it has been easier to buy food with a little taste to it, once you have conquered your distrust of the thick neat slices and the transparent wrappings. You have even been able to get sourdough bread once a week in some groceries: a frail wisp of the old nose-tickling loaf, but at least an effort in the right direction . . . Sometimes, when you go past a factory in the “foreign” section of a town, and smell the honest exciting smell of real bread baking, you remember a part of your childhood, and feel a child’s helplessness before the fact of a whole nation’s cautious acceptance of its own simplicity.”

My Quarantine Smells Like Jasmine Rice

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Scents that jolt our memories are important because we rarely smell them anymore.

Think about that for a moment.

I can still summon the soothing aroma of the Nivea lotion I used during my sixteenth summer. And the piquantly fruity smell of Haribo Gummi Bears, my favorite snack at summer camp. If I smell boiled cabbage, I step back into the hallway of my late grandmother’s home in Germany. And it’s only in India that I can inhale a particular mix of diesel, wood and spices.

I am staying home, probably for a month or two, and I wonder whether there will be a scent from these days that will become a permanent reminder in my olfactory brain.

It is hard to identify the everyday smell of your own home, although anyone who visits you probably has noticed it. I can only smell a change in my environment, and these days, that is the smell of freshly cooked jasmine rice.

Before the quarantine, my go-to rice was basmati, a long-grain rice that originates in South Asia. I buy a 20-pound bag imported from India every 9 months or so from Sam’s Club. The rice supply inside my home bag was running low this winter, and I was too busy to replace the bag before I realized I really needed more.

When the virus began to spread in Baltimore, I had no desire to rush to a warehouse store to look for Royal Basmati Rice along with thousands of other panicking people. Instead, I hurried through jammed neighborhood supermarkets and a gourmet grocery stores. It was Friday the 13th, and the stores were out of lots of staples, including basmati, arborio, and long grain rice. All that was left on the shelves were small bags of sushi rice, and jasmine rice. Jasmine is a medium-length grain that is slightly moister than basmati, but still has enough of a presence that it plays well with Indian curries, and many other dishes.

Jasmine rice is grown in Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam, and probably would not be as delicious if people tried to grow it elsewhere. I love this rice varietal’s sizable grain that, when it’s steaming, fills the air with a sweet, almost jubilant aroma. Some say it smells like a combination of a fruit called pandan… and popcorn. Interestingly, jasmine rice doesn’t have a biological relation to the Asian flower, although the jasmine flower’s tiny white blossoms are used often for religious ceremonies also has a powerful smell.

In The Sleeping Dictionary, I wrote about the rice troubles of 1943, when the rice farmed in rural Bengal was shipped out to the troops in such great quantities, that there was not enough left for Indians. About 3 million Indians, mostly Bengalis, died of starvation in the Rice Famine. The wealthy in India hoarded rice in 1943 just as people are hoarding hand sanitizer and toilet paper today. And when the poor flooded Calcutta, begging for food, aid workers had to feed them rice cooking water, because rice itself was too much for their abused stomachs to manage.

Rice is once again a war-time food; a very thrifty, filling and versatile way to keep feeding a family that cannot go shopping. Potatoes go green, bread gets hard and sometimes moldy, but rice perseveres.

People are sometimes afraid to cook rice, but it’s truly very easy.

I’ve cooked jasmine rice straight out of the bag, throwing it unranked in the rice cooker with the prescribed amount of water. You get the best result if you rinse it really well, though, with a few changes of water, before starting to cook the drained, slightly softened rice with a quarter teaspoon of salt, or to taste.

If you don’t have a rice cooker or InstantPot, it’s a cinch (and faster) to add one cup of rice to a hot saucepan on the stove with a little oil on the bottom. Stir for a half minute and pour in one and a half cups of water and the aforementioned salt. When it comes to a boil, put a lid on and change the heat to low-medium. Check in ten minutes or so, and if the water is almost gone, turn off the burner and let the steaming finish. Add a half-cup more water if you want your rice really sticky! If you double the amount of dry rice to two cups, use three cups of water.

I think the sticky/starchy characteristic helps jasmine rice hold its own nicely in the refrigerator for up to a half week—when basmati really gets nasty after more than two days.

I am striving not to throw away uneaten food during this quarantine period, but to repurpose it and eat it swiftly, so I am very happy I wound up with a big bag of jasmine rice. I use my refrigerated leftover rice. I also use it with other ingredients in fried rice and biryani. I could do a rice pudding, or a casserole as well. Rice of any sort freezes well and can be reheated from frozen in a hot pan or the microwave.

I have about eight pounds of jasmine rice, having cooked it about four times so far during the isolation period. I hope it holds out for however long I’m here. The memory of Asia wafting from the rice cooker reminds me of so many happy restaurant meals and far-flung travels. Right now, rice promises me that the world will go on.

Hiking My Own Spice Trail

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Political chaos is making me cling to quiet evenings home. As it turns out, I am not alone in thinking that our everyday, intimate life can be a source of restoration.

The idea that our kitchens should remain places of joy was explored beautifully on this Sept. 13 Splendid Table podcast. One of the show’s regular contributors, editor Tucker Shaw from America’s Test Kitchen, suggested replacing old spices with new ones as a profound way to nurture yourself.

A few days after hearing the podcast, I got an email from a home organizing site, A Bowl Full of Lemons, that proclaimed that very day was the one that everyone needed to purge their spice drawer. Yes. In that dream blog world, all the spices come in matching jars, and they take up one small drawer.

The writing was on the wall—or in my case, the kitchen blackboard. I hoard spices the way that shops and libraries store books. In fact, I believe in a library of spices, along with a library of cookbooks. But I knew that any spice organization program in my home would last much longer than the fifteen minutes suggested by A Bowl Full of Lemons.

I like to think that my own spice and dried herb trail is a microcosm of the original spice trails emanating from Asia and the Americas to Europe. In my house, one is forced to hunt down spices in both a kitchen and a butler’s pantry. The journey includes stops to view, sniff and taste many dozens of jars that have been crammed like unhappy subway riders in six kitchen drawers, with the overflow packed in three plastic containers in a large cabinet.

There are so many spices that our husband does not know where to start looking, when he wants to cook. His solution is to go to the neighborhood grocery and buy a tiny, six-dollar bottle of whatever he does not see.

I needed Marie Kondo, but she was not available. And predictably, as I began considering the values of my assorted spices, many of them tugged mightily at my heart. It is not the same as wilted celery from a fridge or frostbitten lamb from the freezer. The spices look fine, and they will not make you sick, if you add a tired teaspoon to your soup or stew.

But here’s my problem. Removing spices is striking at history of past cooking—and dreams of dishes that could be.

One of the first big jars I regarded was a giant one stuffed with dried purple-red guajillo chiles that I purchased at a bodega, probably around 2009 when I was very ambitious. The chilies traveled with me to Maryland in 2012—quite far, because we have lived in Maryland since 2012. The dried chiles are so large and gorgeous—but could they be a tad too complex for my ordinary enchilada and chili nights?

Probably a third of my spices hail from India. I adore a multi-spice pack from the southern state of Kerala brought to me by a relative a few years ago (who’s counting). The pack has locally grown black peppercorns, star anise, whole cloves, cardamom pods and cinnamon bark. This is a key, highly aromatic grouping that goes a long way, either as single elements, or roasted and ground into a kind of garam masala used for Malayali cooking.

Kerala is also the home of my most unused and mysterious item: cocum. Cocum are small sour black orbs that were a subtle flavoring in a fabulous shrimp curry made by Maria Zacharia for my daughter and me in her Alleppey home in 2008. Maria gifted me the cookbook she wrote,  and because cocum was on the ingredient list for many of her fish recipes, I hunted it down in a local market.  Despite the passage of time, the cocum is moist, and it is supposed to be soaked before cooking. It is staying with me another decade, I believe.

In my various drawers and the cabinet, I discovered three containers of the black cumin seeds more commonly known as nigella or kalonji. These were easy to toss, because I had already bought a new bag and discovered the taste of a new kalonji seed is biting and much more interesting than the aged seeds.

Taste-testing and careful viewing were good way to lead a reluctant drawer-cleaner to truth. Cardamom pods might look green and plump, but inside, if the seeds are white, they are far from fresh.  I found that the cardamom I’d stored inside the butler’s pantry cabinet had fresh black seeds inside the pods, making it a snap to eliminate the three other small jars of old cardamom pods.

Spice mixtures are a special problem unto themselves. Anyone who cooks from a good Indian cookbook—and I am thinking most specially of Madhur Jaffrey—is instructed to roast and grind spices and mix them in particular ways for easy use in future dishes. The same kind of spice blend making is encouraged in Mexican cooking and Middle Eastern cuisine. It took me more than a half-hour a couple of years ago to make Madhur’s hot and sour chaat mixture, but I know that the purpose of making these spice mixtures is because the freshly ground spices are more fragrant than what comes from the store. Though I do not hesitate to buy spice mixes that are new to me, like a bruschetta blend I saw in a department store in Milan, or the Ras El Hanout spice blend I found in a Middle Eastern grocery store in Brooklyn.

It is fortunate my sodium level is normal, because my kitchen is packed with salt. We start with coarse kosher salt and finely milled sea salt, but the real adventures begins with the various flavors of Hawaiian sea salt that I brought home from Honolulu. My feelings run deep for silky gray smoked sea salt, Himalayan pink salt in both block and granulated forms, and kala namak, a volcanic salt from India. I was thrilled to find flaky Maldon salt from England at Trader Joe’s, so it’s been in my wheelhouse for a few weeks. I’m also working through various salt specialty mixes with flavorings of garlic, chili, ginger and paprika. Confession: I only threw away one small container. However, I have pledged not to buy another grain of specialty salt for the next three years.

Midway through the purge, my husband paid a call to the kitchen and requested that I go easy on our tiny collection of American spices (I secretly call them processed vegetable extracts). I am talking about dried, mechanically-minced or granulated or powdered garlic and onion. There is a role for them in some American Thanksgiving dishes and the foods of Louisiana. To each their own. At least their maker, McCormick, is a Baltimore company!

Salt is cheap, and other spices are very expensive. If I had to go to the mat to save a particular spice, it would be the two containers of Iranian saffron. Saffron is a very powerful spice: so aromatic that even a pinch goes a long way. At $160 an ounce, I am certainly going to keep using the precious saffron threads I have, especially with the political drama going on. Who knows when we can get fresh saffron from Iran?

After five hours of slow work, the drawers are cleared, and I have spare room in all of them. I also know exactly where to find what I need.

The epilogue to the grand clean-out is that I now have several dozen of empty glass jars and tiny meal tins. Some are going to recycling, and others will be washed and saved as containers for the small amounts of fresh spices that I intend to buy in the future. Because that was the point of changing out spices: to get the chance to absorb fresh, thrilling new tastes.

Plum Passion

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A book I owned and adored as a child

A book I owned and adored as a child

In Maryland, strawberries mean spring, and peaches and plums mean summer. These aren’t the only fruits that prosper due to our excellent fruit-growing climate, but they are ones that are truly ravishing and worth only eating in season.

I feel especially passionate about plums this summer. They are so varied—my farmers market had at least five varieties last weekend. The sensual experience of looking inside a plum reveals gold, pink, or purple or red flesh. The taste ranges from tart to tangy to sugary sweet. Sizes range from slightly bigger than a cherry to palm-sized. It carries a rose-scented perfume, because the plum is actually linked to the rose family… stop laughing. I am not talking about sex, okay? I am talking about a healthy, anti-oxidant rich plant.

Despite its obvious allure the plum is regarded as the slightly odd cousin to most stone fruit. Perhaps this is because some raw, ripe plums are still tart—and after cooking, plums take on a deep flavor. If the plum is dried, it becomes a prune—and there are no end of jokes about the medicinal benefits of prunes.

I have a special affinity for plums because my German mother introduced me to them. In fact, she considers them the highlight of summer baking. I still remember my mother carrying crates of prune plums into our Minnesota house every August. These were not Minnesota plums—the weather there is too cold to plant plum orchards. But these California plums with tart interiors that were only in the supermarket for a few weeks were treated like treasures. Once the plums were free of stones—a tiresome process that could take hours—they became the stars of Pflaumenkuchen: neat rows of plum slices arranged atop a yeast dough stretched across a cookie sheet. Warm Pflaumenkuchen was served with coffee to adults, because very few children were excited about a sour fruit dessert topped with plain whipped cream. You could say that plums are the Cabernet Sauvignon of fruit. Big, bold, mind-blowing.

Other plums from the crates were boiled down into a dark, thick plum jam that would be eaten year round on toast. I liked this, too. After a childhood of plum jam, most jams made from strawberries and raspberries taste too sweet.

I live a thousand miles from my mother now, so we cannot make plum desserts together. But I am set on carrying the plum torch, and I have sampled all the different kinds of local plums that show up at my farmer’s market. This past weekend, I got a $6 container of Methley plums, doll-sized, purple globes that are slightly bigger than cherries. They are sweet and much juicier than the plums used in German confections; I understand the Methley originated in Asia, where plums are much juicier than the varieties native to Europe.

I remain cheerfully determined to introduce plums to the prejudiced. This week, I found an easy recipe for deconstructed plum galette on the Food52 website. It specifically calls for Methley plums. Preparing the fruit from pitting to cooking took less than fifteen minutes, because the plums are small enough to fit inside a cherry-pitting tool.

The dough was sticky and a little tricky to work with. It baked up delicious and crisp and the perfect foil to warm, juicy fruit. as the recipe suggested, I used two rounds to create a kind of plum sandwich. They were the perfect counterpoint. With cooking, the very sweet plums I’d tasted raw had deepened to a nuanced, bittersweet flavor.

My son took one look and said, no thanks.

How to Feed a Writer

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

black coffee, blackberry jam, and a dark story

M.F.K. Fisher, the great American food writer, once stated:”A writing cook and a cooking writer must be bold at the desk as well as the stove.”

In the 1930s and ’40s, when Mary Frances began her concurrent explorations of cooking and writing, most writers did not cook, probably because these writers were primarily men. And the earliest published women writers who were lucky enough to have the space and time to do this work—Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf and the like—were typically upper class and had household staff to feed them.

I love to write, and my escape from the stress of writing is cooking. if you follow my blogposts, you’ve seen me wax rhapsodic about mushrooms, about Parsi eggs dishes, and all kinds of food.

In my quest to spend more time on writing, I am striving to be more balanced in the kitchen—and to also explore whether certain food powers my brain to focus better. I’ve read several cookbooks with recipes promising better neurological health, but my goal is not to work with cookbooks as often as I’ve been doing.

This year I asked myself: what is the healthiest way to fill both the stomach and the imagination? How can a person too easily diverted by cooking avoid such temptation when she’s alone at home?

pumpernickel is a powerful base for a breakfast sandwich

Plenty of writers have decided it makes sense to write outside of the house—and to eat there as well. In this era, they are mostly at Starbucks. I prefer to think of Dorothy Parker striding into the restaurant inside the Algonquin Hotel for breakfast and lunch with her friends. Not that she used a pen at the table! It was all about joking, drinking, and probably not getting much done in the afternoon.

Okay, let’s return to the present. Have you ever tried going to a real restaurant with your laptop? While it’s nice to have eggs and toast brought to me at the table, once I’m finished with my plate and continue to write, I feel like a barnacle on the side of the establishment. And how does the writer handle bathroom breaks in the restaurant? Do I leave the laptop containing my big project on the table, or carry it to the potty the way I’d bring my purse?

There’s nothing wrong with dining at home on food prepared elsewhere. However, to undertake this needs a good deal of planning, and the food choices that look the most beautiful are often destructive. A sugar-dusted doughnut is tempting with morning coffee, but it will make me shaky and unable to concentrate within a few hours. Gourmet sandwiches from stores often stand six inches high and are made from such thick bread that they also put my insulin into overdrive. And don’t get me started on full-sized entrees from proper restaurants. If you’d like to see me snoring through the afternoon, just serve me a delicious, heavy lunch.

This year, I am streamlining my dining at home. My goal is not to spend longer than 30 minutes cooking anything during my workday. Here’s the M.O.

For breakfast I toast good brown bread from a local bakery, and I top it with a quality cheese or jam, and several times a week the toast topping is an egg scrambled with vegetables. I take vitamins and calcium on the side, and I try to drink a couple of glasses of water. I am seriously dehydrated, all the time.

Ahh, the antioxidants in cherries!

After that, I try to write at least two hours. Fresh or cooked fruit is the second energy shot that I take around 10 in the morning. After that, I break for some activity at the gym.

Lunch is always eagerly anticipated. Like breakfast, I eat it by myself, so I don’t have to worry if anyone else likes what’s going on the plate. A fridge full of leftovers means various cups of soup, beans, small cooked vegetables, kimchee, and rice. Sometimes there’s even a half-serving of chicken or fish or a couple of meatballs. So, how is my meal different from tapas? I can imagine Dorothy Parker poking fun at my lunches, especially since they are washed down with a glass of water and a couple of Vitamin D gummy raspberry chews for dessert.

A simple homemade carrot soup

Chicken curry, rice and a melange of potatoes, yams and green beans

I work again. Around 4 p.m. I’m often craving salt. The standard snack to fill the void used to be crackers and cheese, but now that I am trying to reduce dairy, I dip raw vegetables or plantain chips in hummus or munch some almonds or cashews. If I have a sweet craving, I might slather peanut butter on a toasted waffle (I keep a few homemade ones in the freezer) or Nutella on a digestive biscuit.

A homemade waffle with almond butter, banana, and chia topping

The writing day is done by five and cooking is once again allowed! I I relish the chance to sway between the fridge and stove and bend to lift up pots and pans. I usually cook meat or fish with vegetables and some form of rice. Usually it’s Asian or Mediterranean food—easy dishes flavored with spices and herbs—true friends with benefits.  I often use the InstantPot to pressure cook dried beans or to concoct a dal that can be eaten at a few different meals during the week. My husband likes this kind of food. My children do not.

You might have noticed something missing in my diet. It is coffee, the infamous element in a lot of writers’ rituals.

I drink about one and a half-cups of locally roasted coffee made in a French press at breakfast. I might have another cup in the mid-afternoon if I’m dead-tired and have to go out and drive the carpool or drive to a faraway book signing. But chain-drinking coffee does not make me feel grounded and focused on work—it gives me the jitters. Some therapeutic drinks that work for me throughout the day are water, black tea, green tea, mint tea, and before bed, the venerable chamomile.

Writing a book is slow work, and in my experience, it can be detrimental to the body. There have been years when I would sneak downstairs from my study to snack as a way to escape the half-written page. I’m no saint—if I know there’s chocolate in the cupboard, I may have an afternoon binge. But overall, I take a great deal of pleasure in eating this way.

Am I feeding my mind?

I don’t know about that—but I do feel sated.

The Start of a Book Purge

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A doctor once reassured that it’s normal for a writer to be disorganized. Clutter goes hand in hand with creativity. That my excuse for my lifelong for tendency to fall victim to clutter. But looking at it doesn’t make me feel calm.

Because of my issues, I find it escapist entertainment to read books and watch TV programs about cleaning and organizing. I recently binge-watched a great program on Netflix, “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.” I’d already read her two books, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy, although I’ve followed of her teachings so far is to declutter about thirty percent of my clothes.

I’m charmed by Marie’s warmth and playful excitement when it comes to transforming chaos into serenity. Yet critics are attacking her for her ideas about book tidying. In truth, she does not advise a certain number of books for anyone, just as she won’t guide people on which items to discard from their drawers. But she does suggest paring down in a few different ways in order to make sure what we have are books that are used or that are physical embodiments of comfort and happiness.

I decided to see if Marie’s approach could help me with my book problem. I typically donate dozens or up to a hundred books every few years. Such book purges are often inspired by moving house. I only throw away a book if it’s damaged. When every town had several used bookstores, I’d find buyers for some of the haul. Used bookstores are so few and far between these days, so it’s easier to donate.

When I lived in Minnesota, I could drop off used books in good shape to be shipped to readers in Africa, part of a humanitarian effort our own Michael Stanley championed. In Maryland, the best option is to carry cartons of books to The Book Thing, a nonprofit located in an old industrial building a couple of miles away from my home. Every Saturday, The Book Thing attracts browsers who pick up whatever they’re drawn to. It’s got the same vibe as used bookstores I remember from the old days, only instead of the books costing $1 to $10, they are completely free.

As I think about this, I visualize people discovering my books, hopefully feeling like they got a steal on an immaculate coffee table cookbook or autographed mystery. The trouble is I have to get the books off my shelves first, and decide who gets to stay in the nest and who will be sent out to fly.

Marie advises gathering all the books into one place and then start sorting. But when we are talking about a couple thousand books on three floors, that sounds like hard physical labor.

I like the expression “to pick low hanging fruit.” So I began with the long, built-in bookcase my husband built for our cookbooks in the butler’s pantry. Cookbooks are unemotional handbooks not literary keepsakes—and we have more than three hundred. Yes, three hundred cookbooks owned by a couple who probably cook dinner four times a week!

Tony and I began buying cookbooks when we married in our twenties and were dreaming of a domestic future. If we tried to cook every recipe in this collection once, I am certain that we would die before we were done opening cookbooks. Morbid thoughts aside, I addressed the bookcase.

Most of my cookbooks feature cuisines of different countries. I’ve always rationalized storing them as authoritative resources I may turn to in the future, when I am cooking as often as Nigella Lawson (ha ha). Tony has his own favorite cooking tomes from his hometown of New Orleans, as well as Julia Child classics that I am keeping without question to preserve marital harmony. There are also a few easy cookbooks I received when I was a little girl that must be saved for future grandchildren. Jammed in between the books we often use are slick, trend-driven cookbooks that publicists sent to the Baltimore Evening Sun when I used to write their cookbook reviews, and dozens of cookbooks collected when I was in Japan and India that are part and parcel of the novels that I write. When I describe a Japanese rice gruel that is spoon-fed to the ill, or a caramelized onion dal served at a palace, the origins of these dishes are in my cookbooks.

I hardly ever cook Japanese food anymore, so I’m only saving two of those books. However, I continue to cook Indian food regularly, so most of these cookbooks, large and small, weathered this purge. But I thanked about twelve of them for their service and hope they find homes with Indian food lovers who shop at The Book Thing. They will be part of the donation of about one hundred cookbooks.

I can’t boast that my shelves look splendidly organized, but at least everything’s in the right section. I know to locate any Italian cookbooks on the far-right bottom shelf, the vegetarian cookbooks in the case’s top shelf, and all fifteen Louisiana cookbooks stacked in a column running down the center.

It took two to three hours to go through this book case, which is not an inconsequential amount of time. Yet the hours spent sorting turned out to be a sentimental return to past journeys and meals.

I came away feeling certain that that books are food … and food is better when shared.

Summer on the Table

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Summer is supposed to be done. I know this because I see big yellow school-buses on the freeway, and the Staples office supply store is full of families loading up on binders, notebooks, and pencils. But may I make a public service announcement that it’s still summer out there? I only have to go to the farmer’s market in Baltimore to know this. August and September are the peak months for tomatoes, peppers, peaches and plums. Just about everything is at its best, with the exception of delicate lettuces.

Baltimore and nearby suburbs are awash in farmers’ markets, large and small. I usually shop at the big one that runs year-round in the neighborhood of Waverly on Saturdays, but I also adore the Kenilworth Farmers’ Market in Towson on Tuesday afternoons, which is smaller but has a more “artisan” feeling.

I find it exciting that Maryland farmers are now growing specialty tomatoes like the ones famous from San Marzano, Italy. Though I’m sure Italians would not be happy to see the name of that terroir applying to bullet-shaped, meaty tomatoes grown outside of Italy. But wow! The transformation of these Roma tomato varieties into sauce and chutney is magically easy.

Excellent cherry tomatoes went into this salad that is jazzed up with avocado, scallions and basil.

I rarely travel in the summer, because I dig very deeply into writing and revising. Fall is the time writers must travel for book festivals. I would ideally like to write-garden-cook all summer, but the heat drives me inside so I’m mostly writing and cooking.

My eyes are bigger than my stomach—how many things can you do with a gorgeous bunch of scallions before it wilts?

The smaller the zucchini, the more I want to eat them. But there are only so many ways to shred, slice, sauté and bake “courgettes,” another name for them that is not used here.

I tried to tempt my husband toward kale by asking him to grill it. Result: interesting, but still pretty sharp. With summer’s ease, these are experiments worth taking. If it doesn’t thrill the palate, try something else.

This is a delicious variant on potato salad; grilled potatoes and fennel, pickled fennel fronts and a yogurt mint dressing. And look below to see a snack of grilled corn tossed with fresh herbs and topped with cornflakes! All of these recipes are weekend experiments taken from an excellent recipe collection of Kerala-inspired grilled dishes published in an early summer edition of Food and Wine.

An improvised apricot-blueberry-buttermilk cake that I concocted looked rather like a Matisse. Fabulous warm from the oven.

Cooking summer produce is a way for me to vacation into different countries without leaving my house. Still, all the fancying and fixing can’t replace the perfect purity of what we can only eat in the summer, sometimes with a fork and often, just with the hands.

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.