28 December 2009

Just New Year after this.

This year, we had masses of people over at my apartment for the 25th. Usually, my husband would go to Chicago to visit his family, and I’d call up my friends to party in the city. This year, however, we were really tight on money, so that was flat out not an option. Even if our parents covered the costs of the flight, we’d still be out of luck, because then we’d both miss days of work (and thereby, the pay from said work). It was simply not at all possible to finagle it this year. Instead, I figured on having our friends come over instead, and cooking with/for everyone.

Honestly, it couldn’t have been better. We were all sitting about in two groups. Some at the dining room table, and some at the kitchen. I did the silly thing and forgot to snag extra cutting boards, even though I had plenty of knives. Fortunately, I don’t really care too much about the wooden dining room table, so I just had everyone cut directly on that surface.

In the kitchen, all four burners were going, as well as the oven. We polished off an entire bottle of sparkling cider between the three of us in the first half hour! So as before, I’ll recap a couple of things I learned at this event, and maybe we can all learn from my pitfalls and come out with a better understanding!

Sparkling cider is freaking popular! I didn’t realise how much it was popular until I had some friends over for Thanksgiving. I ordered two or three bottles for a small group of friends coming over. It was to be only two people in the group who don’t drink. The rest of us consume alcohol at parties. Fine.

I’m thinking that I’ll just get a couple of bottles of cider for the two non-drinkers, and wine and spirits for the others. Either because of the festive occasion or because not everyone wanted to consume much alcohol, the sparkling cider disappeared. This time, I ordered six bottles of sparkling cider, and three bottles of wine (and asked my guests to bring wine). Again, demolished in no time flat, by even the non drinkers! Next time, I’m ordering enough that there’s a little vodka to supplement the cider if people want something with alcohol in it, but the beverage of choice shall be sparkling cider. And I bet it’ll still get finished at the end of the night.

Don’t ask people to just bring wine or even a dish. If you’re having a large party, give people the option of bringing disposable Tupperware, zip top bags, or aluminum foil. One of my husband’s friends brought an enormous stack of the Ziploc containers, and it was priceless at the end of the night, with regards to sending out leftovers, and putting away stuff for our own. Heck, you could even ask folk to bring their own cutting board or knife, so that your resources aren’t stretched. That way, even those friends of yours (or family) who are coming up on hard times don’t have to feel left out.

Anything long-cooking, like beans or rice, should be done well in advance, so as to avoid last-minute head aches of the “But I’m hungry noooooooow” variety. In fact, come to think of it, have some kind of snack ready immediately as people are walking in, even if you’re all cooking together, because it means that they’ll be able to take that sharp edge off the immediate hunger, and gnosh on something while chatting and removing coats, taking off winter boots, and getting settled in. As the food and the wine start coming out of the kitchen, people can start eating what they’d like.

What I tend to do is boil chickpeas overnight in the crock pot, and have them ready in the morning. That way, if they’re not cooked through to my liking, I have time to let them cook at a full boiling the morning of. It’s not terribly much work, but it’s one more thing to do that’s out of my way. Then, about 10 minutes before anyone’s due to arrive, I whip up a quick hummus (tahini, lemon, oil, salt, garlic, more garlic, and toasted cumin seeds that I crush up in my pestle & mortar).

If I have time, I’ll toast off the pita bread or French bread that I’ve bought the previous day (or that day itself if I’m running a little late the day before!) but I’ve found that this step just makes it incredibly delicious, and isn’t strictly required. Any leftover chickpeas go into the salad (if there is a salad), or back in the fridge in the event of a chickpea emergency (i.e., you run out of hummus!).

Then, as people are nibbling that, I’ll start churning out the fried food, be it Indian (bajji, pakora), or from elsewhere (falafel, various fritters). Fried food needs to be eaten piping hot. Since I use my cast iron skillet for deep frying, it helps season the iron while I’m doing the frying, so that I can cook the next thing in there when I’m done frying. Of course, while I’m doing the deep frying, I tend to borrow oil from the deep fry pot, and don’t bother using the fresh oil. It imparts a delicious flavour to the rest of the food (because of the amount of spices in the Indian dishes, and the amount of garlic in the falafel!), and means that I’m not wasting oil, which is pretty expensive.

Once everyone’s been munching away at the fried food, it gives me time to churn out the beans dish, spice up the rice, cook the dark leafy greens, make the raw item (either carrot/cabbage/cilantro salad, or avocado/tomato/onion/chili, both of which are dressed with just lemon juice and a bit of salt), and start pulling the slow cooking dishes (casseroles, roasts, etc.) from the oven. When all is said and done, I’ve got a pretty impressive spread. And since nobody’s eating everything all at once, they have time to space out the food, and make plenty of room in there to eat more. The best part is that everything can be enjoyed piping hot, fresh off the stove or oven.

18 December 2009

I think I just got the nicest email today. I wanted to share it with you all.

Hey Dino,
I ordered another copy of your cookbook to give to a friend as a Giftmas present. I ordered it through tofu hound press and paid 11 dollars (gulp) for shipping, to get it here fast. I hope it can get here before Giftmas. I am going to wrap it up for her along with some cuman seeds, black mustard seeds, tumeric and corriander seeds in nice reusable containers (glass jars with resealable lids) I'm going to put ribbons and bows around the containers and label them. It will be perfect!

It's from my friend Shannon, who lives in the frozen north, AKA Canada. I think she's in Winnipeg? Something like that. Either way, it's one of those "I really care about you" type gifts, because she's providing pretty close to everything one needs to make pretty close to most of the recipes found in the book.

I hope Shannon's friend thoroughly enjoys the spices, and the book. If she hates the book, at least she's still got some awesome spices!

12 December 2009

Just in time.

It was a niggling voice of paranoia that made me leave the house at 2:15 to get to work by 4, but I certainly paid attention to it. Headphones in, wallet in bag, and shipment ready to post. I made it here by 3:30. Usually it takes me 20 minutes flat to get to the village, but as the fates were conspiring to make it a particularly crazy Saturday, I decided not to take any chances.

Off I went to the post office. I had to send a book media mail, and it should ostensibly take about five minutes flat to get in and out. Good thing I planned on giving myself extra time. The queue at the post office took a goodly 45 minutes to power through. What a mess! It looks like folk were shipping out their holiday goodies today at the same time, and there will be no chance of getting through quickly.

Fine by me. I had time to spare. Out I ran at 3:00 to see the bus roll up. I silently sent a prayer of gratitude to the man who had to get his wheelchair out of the bus, because it held up the bus for a few minutes, so that when I got to the bus stop, the bus was just starting to board. Panting, I slid my card in, and got on.

Onwards to the subway stations. "Ladies and gentlemen, there will be no Queens bound trains coming to this stop until Monday at 5 AM.

Score. I could still make it to work without taking that infernal tram (we live on Roosevelt Island, and when taking east side trains, I take the tram, and to go to the west side, I take the F train). Although the trip home might take a bit longer than usual, the crucial bit (getting to work on time) was well within my grasp. Just as I swiped my metro card on the turnstile, the lift was opening. I made a semi-sprint for it, and made it into the lift with plenty of time to spare.

Down the lift descended, to the bowels of the Roosevelt Island stop. The doors opened to show the subway just pulling into the station.


I got on the train, which went from stop to stop without a pause, drag, or "train traffic ahead" slow down. We pulled into West 4th almost exactly 25 minutes later. Very very nice indeed. I got out of the train station to walk past unresisting walk signs all the way through and sailed through the door at 3:35.

Which leaves me plenty of time to get on here, say hi to you lovely folks, and relax for a couple of minutes before work starts. One hopes that the rest of the day proves to be as smooth sailing.

07 December 2009

I'm reminded of a dinner I had at my place, when the guests were just coming in, and the only thing that was done was the rice. Bad. Also, there was only one burner working. Worse. Also, I couldn't find the cooked beans. Catastrophe.
I popped open a tin of chickpeas, threw in some tahini, some bottled (gasp!) lemon juice, garlic, and a splash of olive oil, and let the food processor rip. While that was going, I got a pan screaming hot. In went some oil, cumin seeds, and sesame seeds. When the seeds were popped, I dumped in a bag of baby spinach. I slammed on the lid, and turned around to open the food processor, and scrape down the sides. Again, off it went. I thinned it out with a bit of water, and let it keep going. I turned back to the spinach, and saw that it was barely wilted. Perfect.
I turned off the heat, and tossed it through a couple more times. I set out a loaf of bread, and the hummus and spinach, and encouraged everyone to tear off a piece of bread, spread on some hummus, and pile up the spinach. It was a novel (and delicious) idea, and everyone was raving about it. While they were distracted, I grated some carrots and cabbage into the food processor (without washing it; the hummus would provide a dressing!). I scraped out every last bit of goodness from the food processor, and tossed the cabbage and carrot with the hummus. Then into the microwave went 2 tins of black beans in a pyrex dish, along with a bit of cumin powder. Nuked that for 5 minutes. As soon as the microwave beeped, I threw in some chopped cilantro to round out the flavour.
Five minutes later, the main part of the meal was on the table (beans, rice, salad). For dessert, I sliced up some lovely fruit that I had lying around (apples and pears) and served them on a block of rock salt. It was lovely.
Point is that even when your best laid plans fall apart, if you can think on your feet, you'll still be fine. Just have a couple of things in your house (tinned beans, very quick cooking veg, some bread, fruit), and you're bound to be OK even when things are going nuts around you.

06 December 2009

Be yourself.

I was talking to my mother the other day, and we were discussing how she had a party for my baby sister’s (who isn’t such a little one anymore; the girl has a baby of her own now!) birthday. She’d made some noodles, lemon rice, potato curry, a few other dishes, and like a macaroni with pasta sauce. I was confused as to why they’d bothered with the macaroni drill, because there was so much other food, all of which would be quite delicious, and was distinctly Indian in both execution and flavour. She wasn’t quite sure why. I guess my sister thought that since the preponderance of people coming over were American, they’d be able to relate to it more.

Three guesses what finished first, and the first two don’t count.

She had all of one cup of lemon rice left over. She had none of the potatoes (and she’d made something to the tune of 12 lbs of the stuff) left, none of the other veg left, and pretty close to all of the pasta left over. Furthermore, the stuff that she kept mild (no chilli) was left over in greater quantity than the stuff she added the heat to. Why is this? Let’s think about it for a moment.

For one thing, people are coming to your house to have your company. Yes, the food is often a lovely bonus, but in reality, it’s you they’re there to see. Whatever you make is going to be a good thing. It’s much like going out for a meal with friends. Yes, there are times when the service or food are less than stellar, but for the most part, you’re there for each other’s company.

The other thing is that when you cook a unique style of food, people are going to your house to get stuff that they can’t get anywhere else. Think about it. If people come to my house, they know they’re going to get my special hummus that I make with obscene amounts of garlic and toasted cumin. They know that they’ll get an excellent daal. They know that they’ll get some kind of roasted vegetable, some kind of curried vegetable, and some kind of green cooked with coconut milk. It’s more or less a given.

At my mother’s house, you know you’re going to get a stewed veg, some kind of curried veg, some lemon rice (because it really /is/ that popular) and a raw salad. It’s pretty much a given. In fact, it’s so much a given that people specifically come to her house for it, since she does it so well. That’s what I had to talk to her about. People love her cooking, and can get pasta any old place. They don’t need to come to her house for it! And furthermore, they love her hot spicy food. Add the chilli! It’ll still be delicious, and if someone can’t take that much heat, they’ll eat more salad and balance it out.

The point I’m trying to make is this: be true to yourself. Yes, you can try to do things that are “accessible”, but it won’t be you, which is the entire reason that your friends are coming to visit in the first place. They want your food, your cooking, and your company. Yes, it’ll be different from what they’re used to, but that’s OK!

I guess part of it comes from her experiences in the past, where people thought that our food is “weird” and didn’t know what to do with it. But that was years and years ago, before the advent of the Internet, and before people were familiar with Indian cookery and spices. Nowadays, you can find cumin anywhere in the country. You can find turmeric in pretty much any grocery store. Heck, I even passed by a grocery store that had cardamom, and I haven’t seen that in a mainstream store before. Times are changing, and people are changing.

What would have been made fun of in the past is now looked upon with longing. It’s the same for your own culture (or another culture, if you’re given to borrowing). People aren’t so afraid of “unusual” anymore, and are fairly adventurous, if you just give them a chance. So give them a chance, and let them see the real you. They’ll thank you for it!