Archive for food

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.

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.

When Food is a Character

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

There’s a poignant food moment during Made in Heaven, the gorgeous Amazon drama set in New Delhi, that makes me hungry remembering it.

Tara, the show’s beautiful and troubled heroine, is alone at night when she buys a snack called golgappas from a street vendor. Golgappas are mini puris stuffed with cooked vegetables and bathed in spicy toppings: a sloppy, crunchy treat that pretty much everyone in India knows, although the dish’s name is different according to your region. Tara returns home from her street food adventure and tells her husband Adil that he’s got to try these particular golgappas. He refuses, saying that street food is will only cause disease. Because the dish is drenched in spiced water, I can understand the objection; although in this case, Adil’s a snob and is denigrating his wife along with street food. Golgappas, in his mind, are an evil force.

I wish I had the superpower to blithely eat street food in India. I still dream about about the gorgeous purple grape juice that was being hand-crushed on the street in Mumbai, that I longed to sip but did not dare. The trouble is that I have a sharp memory from my first trip to India in the 1970s, when my whole family became violently ill after sampling chai made in the railway station. I was the only one who escaped tummy trouble because I was asleep in my berth in our train compartment and missed the opportunity to get a cup.

I still get a taste of street food in a very pedestrian way. It turns out that a lot of Indian expats miss street food, so they tend to make it at home in the United States. This is where I first tried golgappas and a whole world of fantastic snack foods including pav bhaji and bhel puri.

As I continue writing historical fiction set in India, I write meals into my books, and my kitchen experiments grow. I like to match food to the region, of course, because in the 1920s, the only dishes crossing the various provinces were European ones. There was no such thing as a generic Indian restaurant serving Punjabi style dishes like tandoori chicken and saag paneer.

Fresh curry leaves are essential to pohe

In Western India, one of the simple, popular breakfast dishes is beaten rice (rice grains pounded flat) typically cooked with a few spices, green chilies, onion and peanuts—though there are variations. The beaten rice itself is called pohe or poha, and I was introduced to it by my mother, who prepared it in my house when she and my stepfather, who was born and raised in Mumbai, were visiting. When I went to Mumbai, I recognized it on every breakfast table, whether at home or in the hotel. Pohe is also a very mild dish, which made me want to do bad things with it in my novel. If setting can be a character, why can’t food? Could the pohe serve as a kind of weapon aimed to derail my heroine Perveen Mistry, who never resists something that smells tasty?

I first tried making this dish for friends from India a few years ago, and it was an epic fail due to my soaking the pohe too long before cooking, and then serving everyone an hour after the dish had finished cooking. The grains were all wet and sticky. For my sophomore effort, I resolved to eat the pohe as soon as it came out of the skillet.

Once I had my recipe in mind, I detoured to my nearby South Asian grocery (Punjabi) which had the basics I needed for this dish. The most important key, besides the pounded rice, are the fresh curry leaves, which are soft and can be eaten just as you might eat cilantro leaves. I studied a variety of recipes and noticed a trick for softening the pohe, which I will share with you. I implore you, do not attempt this dish without authentic pounded rice, sold in bags in Asian stores. You can pick up the recipe’s second key ingredient, fresh curry leaves, in the store’s refrigerator.

The rinsed beaten rice is massaged with turmeric and sugar

I used a large pan ate give everything a chance to cook evenly

Bravo! Pohe!

POHE (or POHA)

1 cup thick pohe, beaten or flattened uncooked rice
3 tablespoons raw unsalted peanuts
1 cup diced onion
¼ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
12 fresh curry leaves
1 jalapeno, seeded and chopped and divided into two portions
2 tablespoons high heat cooking oil, such as grapeseed
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Handful of chopped fresh cilantro

  1. Begin by chopping the onion, the jalapeno, and assembling all ingredients to be used in the dish.
  2. Place the dry pohe in a colander and let a stream of cold water run over it for about 3 minutes. Turn off the water and add the turmeric and sugar. Massage these into the wet pohe until it is tinted yellow. The pohe should be soft to the touch.
  3. Heat the oil over medium heat and fry the peanuts for a few minutes. Set aside. Into the same hot pan, add a little more oil as needed and toss in the mustard and cumin seeds. When the mustard seeds start popping, add the curry leaves and saute for no more than 5 seconds. Now add in the chopped onion and first portion of chopped jalapeno.
  4. When the onion is translucent, pour in the damp pohe and ½ teaspoon of salt. Stir briefly, lower heat and cover pan with lid. Let everything steam-cook on low for about 5 minutes; it’s OK to check that nothing is burning.
  5. Sample the pohe to make sure it’s soft enough to eat (but not too soft or sticky). Add the lemon juice and chopped cilantro and peanuts.
  6. When serving on individual plates, allow people to add extra jalapeno from the reserved portion to their own dish if they are hot food lovers.

I think I’ve figured out pohe, because it tasted like I remember in India. I ate two portions at “brenner” (breakfast for dinner) and went back for another taste while I was writing it. The proportion of this recipe feeds two people.

This is my taste of homey Maharashtra for you. When The Satapur Moonstone comes out in May, you’ll understand how a mild-mannered dish can be distorted for nefarious purposes.

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.

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