24 March 2010

Story of Sun and Wind

Story of the sun and the wind

I can’t remember if it was my mother or father who told me this particular story, but it’s one of my favourites (next to the stone soup story, of course). Either way, my father and mother would frequently use metaphors and stories involving the sun for me, seeing as I’m named for the Sun God. Dino is an anglicised version of Dinu, which is a shortened form of …

Almost let it slip. I don’t give out my full first name to everyone. It’s too special to share. The story behind it is quite interesting, but I’ll save that for another day. I digress. So anyway, one of the things my father used to tell me all the time is, “If a dog barks at the sun, does the sun stop shining?” Of course not! It sort of reminds me to keep things in perspective when others start getting angry and doing hurtful things. No need to be a doormat, but there’s also no need to pull yourself down to that level, and copy their techniques.

So, back to the story.

One winter morning, the Sun and the Wind were having a chat. They started listing their accomplishments, and got into a disagreement about who was the more powerful being. Sun and Wind saw a man walking down a long path on his way home.

“Whoever can get that man to remove his coat faster will be the winner,” said Wind. Sun quietly agreed, and let Wind go first. Wind called up a particularly frigid blast from the North Pole. He let fly a gale that flew into the man’s face. The man leaned into the oncoming blast, and wrapped his coat around himself even tighter. The harder that Wind tried to prise the coat from the man’s vise-like grip, the tighter the man held onto his coat. Eventually, the wind puffed a breath of exhaustion and said, “I give up! I don’t know what you plan on doing, but good luck! That man really likes his coat.”

And then, Sun smiled.

As he smiled, his rays washed over the land, bathing it in a warming glow. Sun kept smiling. The man kept walking. In a few minutes, he felt the warmth of Sun reaching through the coat, all the way down to his core. Without thinking, he removed his coat, and slung it over one arm, as he walked home, whistling a jaunty tune.

Wind gave Sun a withering look.

Sun smiled.

21 March 2010

Books

I was chatting to some friends about various books I've read in the past, many of which came from my high school days. There were many that I loved, and read and re-read. I'm just going to plunge in and start with the ones I disliked.

Catcher in the Rye. Absolutely hated that piece of trash. It's a couple of hours that I'll never get back of my life. Every time someone talks about how it's such an amazing book, and how it changed their life, etc., I automatically lose respect for that person. It's akin to being a rabid fan of Ayn Rand, who I also cannot stand. Her books are entertaining, but her ideals are vomit inducing.

Then there was Great Gatsby. I could not STAND that load of tripe. It was as boring and vapid as a Jane Austen novel, and that's saying something. Nathaniel Hawthrone was fun, but that's mainly because our English teacher at the time was enchanted with him and would tell us the stories rather than reading through them. Else, I don't think that I could have dealt with more of his verbose chatter. Seriously, people. WHY is it necessary to ramble on about the details of the bloody door on Hester's house? I don't care enough to devote two whole pages to it. Move along.

My problem with Jane Austen, as is my problem with a lot of writers of the Romantic era, is that the characters are pretty annoying. I don't empathise with them, because I dislike them so much. Was it Flaubert that wrote Madam Bovary? I think so. Couldn't stand her either. Didn't like Pride and Prejudice either for the same reason. Also, my problem with Jane Austen is that the whole book drags along until the last 20 or 30 pages or so, and then everything happens all at once.

As a side note, I did enjoy the adaptation of P&P, called Bridget Jones's Diary. Both the book and film were good fun.

I did tremendously like Handmaid's Tale, by Atwood. I read it in high school for an English class, and was so engrossed in it that I couldn't actually keep myself from reading ahead. The teacher would assign a certain amount of chapters, and I'd be well past that point, and having to hold back not to spoil the rest of the book for the others. Oryx and Crake was another one by Atwood that I read on my own much later on, and enjoyed equally well. My only one issue with Atwood's books is that she starts them off in such a way that it takes a good four or five chapters to be drawn into the story. But if you're patient, you're well rewarded.

Then there were the dystopian books, like 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451. Those were seriously good reads, if for no other reason than the fact that at the time I was reading them, there was a huge push in TV and other places that we're wrecking the planet, and should we go on like we are, we will end up with nothing at all and all the animals and plants will be gone. Fahrenheit 451 especially resonated strongly with me, because it was about books, which are a life-long passion for me.

In 10th grade, I had a teacher who would offer us extra credit if we read a book from the bookshelf behind her desk, and discussed it with her when we finished. She introduced me to Sidney Sheldon, Jeffrey Archer, and Ken Follet, who I instantly fell in love with. I devoured Pillars of the Earth (Follet), Kane and Abel, As the Crow Flies (Archer), and all of Sidney Sheldon's books that she had. It was at the point where I'd get through a book in one day, and discuss it with her the next day. She'd be surprised, because I managed to read it in one day, and still keep up with my other classes.

I can't even count the amount of Mercedes Lackey I've read. And read again and again. At one point, I had all of her Velgarth series in hard cover (the ones that were offered in hard cover), along with the companion (if you've read the books, you'll get the pun) books to go with it.

Let's not forget Alexandre Dumas. The Count of Monte Cristo is still one of my favourites. I liked Three Musketeers, but not as much as Monte Cristo. Can't explain why. I guess it's because I read Count of Monte Cristo first.

Anne of Green Gables. Over the years, I've read and re-read that series many times over, and loved them dearly. To watch Anne go from an awkward, and fairly brash young girl into an elegant lady was tremendously enjoyable. "Why, you're better than a whole room full of boys, Anne." Oh, Matthew!

I never got into Shakespeare. Our teachers mostly had us read them, and the language was a hurdle. No, I'm not being fair. I liked MacBeth. I also like Othello. The Iago character was pretty awesome, although Othello himself seemed like a bit of an airhead. You know what the real problem is? They start you in high school with Romeo and Juliet. I think that's a mistake. Then, they move you onto Julius Caesar. And moreover, the teacher doesn't always have the class read it aloud. You read it at home, and are struggling to figure out what the heck is going on, and once you do, you want to roll your eyes at the story line. Why not start off with Merchant of Venice, and then move onto Midsummer Night's Dream or MacBeth or Hamlet? All three of those are pretty decent reads. Instead, they start you with the weepy romance (R&J) and move onto a fairly dense tragedy (Caesar), and by the time you get to MacBeth, which is actually a pretty decent read, you've lost interest.

My middle school teacher let us read MacBeth in class. That was a cool class for sure. She was a huge fan of the book, and took time to explain the stories surrounding the plot, and how the story fits into itself.

Then I got into college, and had an English teacher who rocked my world with Terry Pratchett. I haven't been able to feed my addiction to his books. I started with Equal Rites, and ran to the library to get more. They're like mental candy, but have plenty of satire and substance as well. Ordinarily, I don't care for satire, because it often tends to be heavy handed (Modest Proposal, anyone?) rather than subtle (Gulliver's Travels).

I haven't even nicked the surface of the ones I've enjoyed (or the ones I didn't), but I'm hungry, and I've said what was on my mind for now. Do you agree?

Oh. Tolkien. Can't stand him. Long, boring, rambling. I can put up with it in Dickens, because his novels started as serials, which got combined into a novel. What's Tolkien's excuse? Couldn't stay awake through the films either.

Oh. And Harry Potter. LOVE all the books, have read them multiple times, own all the films on DVD.

11 March 2010

Aloo mattar (potatoes & peas)

Welcome to another episode of "ask Dino, because this darn recipe makes no sense".

I have a vague memory of Aloo Matar, from long in my past that was awesome, and I had it at a restaurant somewhere. I've made a few versions at home but they have fallen a little flat (not so flat that I wasn't willing to eat them, but you get the idea).

Recipe: 8 potatoes sliced
1/2 cup veg oil
Small onion, chopped
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tomatoes, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
1 lb peas
(made a half recipe each time)
Basically it called for sweating the onions, frying the potatoes for 10 min, adding everything else and cooking another 10-15 min. Very easy. I gave it a try, but as above a little bland. I also coarsely cubed the taters, never just sliced them.
My recipe called for tossing in cumin seeds halfway through the cooking, so I tried to Dino-ize it a little and pop them at the beginning. They never popped, but they sizzled and smelled good. No heat in the original, so I chopped a serano pepper and added it with the tomatoes and peas. Better, but still seemed to be missing a little.

Questions: 1) Should my cumin seeds pop or do they just sizzle?
2) What other spices and when to add them?
3) What sort of potatoes would you recommend (bakers?, gold?).

Thanks!

You can cut back on that fat big time, because it's not necessary in the beginning like that. Start with a tablespoon or two, and work forward from there. You can always add more fat, but removing it is not so easy. Also, when you start with a small amount of fat, the pot and the fat get hot extremely quickly, and maintain that heat, so that the spices will pop properly.

Start with a pot that's larger than you think you'll need. Add just enough oil to coat the bottom of it. Let the oil get so hot that it smokes a little. Add in your cumin seeds, and boost the flavour with a bit of coriander seeds for good measure. Let them pop. They MUST pop for the flavour to be worth anything. When the seeds have stopped popping, pitch in the onions. Cook it over very high heat, and let those suckers get softened, then browned around the edges. You don't have the fully get them caramelised, but it won't hurt anything if you let them go to full brown.

All these steps take a tiny bit of extra effort, but they're worth it in the end.

Then, you add your cubed potatoes. If you just slice them, they don't tend to cook so evenly, and they're harder to stir around in your pot. You also tend to miscalculate the amount of fat you need, because the sliced potatoes tend to stack up, and not allow a crust to form.

Here's the trick to getting them to taste like the restaurant. Boil the potatoes first, let them get cold, THEN cube them up. It'll make the potatoes fry off so much more nicely.

As you continue to fry the potatoes in the fat and spices, you'll notice that they take up the fat nicely. THIS is the point at which you can add extra fat, about a teaspoon or so at a time, should the potatoes start sticking to your pot. If you're working with nonstick cookware, you really won't have to worry about this so much.

The next point is a matter of personal taste. Being from the south, I tend to throw in 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric, but this is strictly your own call. I like the colour and taste, but not everyone does.

After about five minutes of cooking over furiously high heat, turn down the heat to medium-low, and cover the lid of the pot, so that they can roast slowly.

SHORTCUT: If you are comfortable with it, lay the potoatoes out onto a baking sheet, and throw them under the broiler of your oven for 2 minutes at a time, until they get brown and crusty and lovely. Then, when the potatoes are brown, toss through the peas, and let it sit under the broiler for another minute or two, to heat the peas up through and through. This method also prevents you from mashing the potatoes as you stir them through. Even my mother, who's been doing this for the better part of 40 years tends to end up with half the potatoes mashed.

At the end, adjust your seasoning with salt, chili, or any other such flavouring you like.

If you do the boiling step, you can use any potato you like, because they tend to all get that lovely texture like the classic dish does. If you don't, just use any good waxy potato, like a yukon gold, or red bliss, or new potato. If you want to add some more north-indian-y spices, like cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, or cardamom, do so in the last five minutes of cooking, so that they stay strong. Just add a few hefty pinches of cinnamon, a pinch or two of clove, a scrape of nutmeg, and a pinch of cardamom powder, and you'll be golden.

If your cumin doesn't want to pop in the fat, or you've forgotten to do so and are adding it halfway through, just dry toast the cumin in a separate skillet, and toss it in. Without properly cooking the cumin, the flavour will fall flat.

Hope this helps a bit!

Tumeric and coriander, excellent. I don't mind if they get a little mashed up. I probably should cube the potatoes a little smaller and I'll have to try the pre-cooking method.

Would you recommend a chili powder or fresh green chilis or what? Thanks again for your time!


Well. There's a couple of routes to go with /that/ as well. Depending on how much you want to control the heat, and what kind of chili powder/fresh chili you're talking, it can change things. The chiles used in India are the Thai Bird chiles. It'll give you the most authentic flavour, and will be sufficiently hot to peel off the roofing tiles if you add enough of them. If you remove some of the seeds, you can scale back on the heat. If you fry the seeds with the onions, you can seriously make the heat a hell load more sneaky.

Here's how it works. You pop your cumin seeds, bla bla bla. Everything is screaming hot in that pot, and it's smelling fantastic. You add in a very big handful of chopped up finely Thai Bird chiles once the spices stop popping, instead of the onion. THEN you add the onion, and let the whole mess get softened, bla bla bla. The heat will dissipate into the fat, and sneak up on you much more slowly.

The chili powder can be ground red chili, cayenne pepper, or hot paprika, depending on your level of heat needs. Add it at the very end in the last minute of cooking, or else your kitchen will fill with lung-searing, painful smoke that you will be coughing up for the next hour.

Personally, when I make something hot, I like to go for a one-two punch. Start with the chiles in fat, and then finish with the powder. That way, when you're eating, you get the immediate jolt of hot hot fire. Then, as you chew and savour the flavour, the sneaky heat that's hiding in the fat comes skulking out and gives you another tingly stabby heat. It's lovely.

Thanks for the answer (and for the question)! Could you substitute plantains for the potatoes? I know it would be non-traditional and all that, but I made the curried plantains out of your book recently and loved them. So I bought more plantains. Thanks!


Yes yes yes yes YES. Yes, definitely. There are a variety of things that you can use in place of potatoes for recipes in the book: plantains (just peel them first), yucca (peel and core first), sweet potatoes, taro (also called ├▒ame in Latin American stores), yautia, or pretty much any other starchy vegetable. In fact, when you're making soup, using yucca would make the flavour superior, because it's got a sort of fragrance about it that works ever so well in soups and stews. Plantains are absolutely a wonderful substitute for potatoes. They work for bajji, curry, soup, stew, or anything else you can dream up.

Oooh, with plaintains! I would assume not completely ripe?


Yes, exactly. Green plantains. I think I put up a youtube video on how to peel them easily.

Link.




Suffice it to say, it was a bit of back-and-forth, but it was lots of fun to discuss food with people who are into it.

10 March 2010

EEEEK!

I was in the plating area, checking for inventory of something or another. I’d asked Boss Man about something and turned around to attend to the espresso machine. I turned back around, and almost ran into Boss Man. In shock, I let out a shriek much like a five year old girl would when she’s confronted with something startling or scary. (And therein, friends, lies the very obvious clue that it isn’t boss man. He doesn’t shriek.)

I know that I dislike using gendered language, but I can’t quite think of another mental image that will match up with that particular exclamation. It’s the sort of thing for which I’d have gotten odd looks or laughter at the least, and teasing or mocking at worst. When it boils down to it, sometimes just being yourself can be risky.

But there’s a couple of things that I took away from that moment. For one thing, I’m comfortable enough with my work environment that such a display didn’t send me (as it would have in the past) red-faced and running to some place where I could be alone for a while. For another thing, nobody even paused, flinched, laughed, or had any reaction at all. That’s an incredibly comforting feeling.

Sometimes, you get lucky, and the people around you know you for who you are, and accept you. Not tolerate you. That would be what I got from people in the past. You’ve seen toleration. It’s rolled eyes. It’s barely concealed contempt. It’s ugly.

I’ve got acceptance.



Aloo Gobi

A dear friend asked if I could describe to her how I would go about making aloo gobi. There are a bunch of different versions, but I like a fairly simple one. Here was my reply:

There's three major methods, but I tend to use one or the other, depending on where I am, and what the intention is. Per head of cauliflower, you want about 3 medium sized potatoes, one medium sized onion, and 3 roma or 1 beefsteak tomato. The spices you want to use are cumin, coriander, and garam masala.

One method is to chop the potato, floret the cauliflower, get onions, ginger, garlic all minced up, and chop up some tomato and cilantro. Then, deep fry the cubed potato till it's tender, and crispy on the outside. Drain. Then, deep fry the cauliflower until it's browned. Pour out the oil from your pot, and leave behind a couple of tablespoons. Pop your spices, sautee your onions, and add in the chopped tomato. Cook them together for about 5 minutes or so. I wouldn't use tinned diced tomato, because it won't break down completely. When you've got your gravy formed, pitch in the fried vegetables, and stew everything together for like 10 - 15 minutes. Add the ginger, garlic, and cilantro, and cook another minute or so. Turn off the heat, slam on the lid, and let it rest for 20 minutes, while you clean up the enormous mess you've made, and put away the 30,000 things you brought out to make this mess. Pull out some flour tortillas, and use the method for making roti, so that you don't make an even more giant mess by making fresh made roti. Because this was a consdierable mess. Pour yourself some wine, sit down with your husband, and eat. For the next day or so, revel in the lovely smells that have permeated your house.

Then, there's the shortcut to all that deep frying. Chop your potatoes only. Toss them in oil, and bake at 350 for 40 minutes. While the potatoes are roasting in the oven, floret your cauliflower, and toss that in a bit of oil too. Spread them out on their own baking sheet, and throw them in the oven when the timer hits 20 minutes. While those two are going, set a large pot on your stove. Leave the stove off. Chop up your onions, and toss them into the pot on the stove. See, this way, you don't dirty up any more dishes than strictly necessary. Trust me, it'll be fine. When all the onions are chopped up, sprinkle some powdered cumin and powdered coriander over the onions. Pour in a couple tablespoons of oil. Turn on the heat to screaming high. The oil will percolate through the onions, and the onion liquid will release quickly, making it so you don't need to add so much fat. While the onions cook, chop up your tomatoes. If you're using diced tomato from the tin, feel free to give them a couple of whizzes with the stick blender to chop them up nicely. Stir the onions every minute or two. When the onions are softened, add the tomato, and cover the lid. Cook covered for about ten minutes, stirring once or twice in between. By now, the timer should be screeching, and your roasted vegetables are ready. Wait until the tomatoes have had a chance to cook down, and become saucy. Add in the roasted vegetables, and stir well. Don't worry terribly if a couple of the potatoes or cauliflower florets break up a bit. It'll still be fine. Cover the lid, and let it stew together. Chop up some garlic, grate some ginger, and mince up some cilantro. When the vegetables have cooked for about 5 minutes in the sauce, open the lid, fling in the garlic/ginger, and add the cilantro. Turn off the heat, and slam on the lid. Wash up the baking sheets, and the cutitng board and knife. By the time you're done cleaning up, the stuff is ready.

The final method is to do everything on the stove, chopping as you go along. You need to be a relatively decent chopper for this to work out to your advantage. Chop some onions. Pop some cumin seeds and coriander seeds in just enough oil to coat the bottom of your pan. Add the diced onion. While the onions cook, cube the potatoes. When the onions are browned, add the potatoes. The reason you brown the onions instead of just letting them get soft is because in the previous two versions, the vegetables got browned. In this method, you're only really browning the onions. While the potatoes cook (over medium heat, please), floret the cauliflower. Chop the tomato, garlic, ginger, and cilantro. The potato cooking will give you plenty of time to chop up the rest of your stuff. The reason you don't add the tomato at the beginning is because you want the potatoes to get roasted a bit. When the potatoes are cooked through to your liking, add the cauliflower, poatotes, garlic, and ginger. Toss everything to combine. Cover with the lid, and let it simmer away for 10 - 20 minutes, depending on how al dente you like your cauliflower, and how big the florets are. If you like your cauliflower very crisp, go for even less than 10 minutes. Point is that you've got some wait time now, so go ahead and clean up behind yourself. There shouldn't be much clean up, beacuse this has become a stirctly one pot dish at this point. Take a peek into the pot about eight minutes in, and give everything a good stir. Let it keep cooking till the cauliflower is to your liking. Serve!

For all three versions, add a good heavy sprinkling of garam masala at the last minute of cooking. For all three versions, you may use 2 - 3 bay leaves and cook it with the onions. If you don't care for cilantro, use parsley or basil. For all three versions, add salt at the end, as the cauliflower will get mushy if you salt at the beginning. Of course, for all three versions, feel free to be generous with some chopped up chilie peppers to give it a kick.

The first method I would use if I'm trying to impress, and I'm doing a bunch of fried food anyway, so I don't have to worry about the deep fat frying being an issue. I've already got a cast iron skillet with hot fat, and I can afford the extra steps. The second method, I'd use at the restaurant, because throwing it into the oven means I don't have to babysit it on the stove. The third method I'd use when it's just me and Puppy, or me and a few friends over for a dinner and a couple of movies on the DVD player. To me, the third method causes the least mess, and I'm in the kitchen cooking other things anyway, so I don't mind that it takes a bit more of my attention.

07 March 2010

So Which One's the Girl and Which One's the Boy?

I don't mind this question from young kids. For one thing, they're still young. I remember being that age, and everything in my life had to fit into neat categories. I was chatting to my boss's son about Harry Potter. He hasn't read book 7 yet, so he doesn't know how it all ends. He wanted to know if Severus Snape is good or evil. I tried to get across the concept that not everyone is all good or all evil. Sure, Voldemort is all evil, but that's just one character. Everyone else is a little of each one. I think he understood it at that point. We talked about how in the first book, Snape saves Harry's life. About how he helps Remus Lupin in third one. And how at the point when Snape killed Dumbledore, he didn't have much of a choice. Unbreakable Vow and all that, y'know?

The point I was trying to get across is that nobody is totally good or totally evil. I think the kiddo understood what I was trying to say, because he came up with his own examples of how some of the "good" characters did some fairly dodgy things. That's how you know the other person sees where you're coming from.

But then he had asked, when he first met my husband, which of us is the boy in the couple, and which is the girl. Again, the kid's in grade school. Not offended. It's when grown adults ask that question that I get slightly (not completely) annoyed. Because in reality, what does that even mean?

For a child of 8 or 9 years old, things have to be clearly defined as one or the other, because that's how they figure out their own roles in life. What I explained to the young 'un was that neither of us is the girl because we're both men. We both share the work around the house, and split them up according to which one we're comfortable or good at doing. So while I tend to do the cooking, Steve tends to do the baking. "Oh. OK. Do you want to see me get to the next level on this game?" It didn't phase him in the least, it seems. I'm often pleasantly surprised at how much children can understand when you give them the chance to understand.

Let me put it out there, once and for all. I am a man. I follow what I feel to be my own version of masculinity. Even when I'm having fun with my clothing or grooming or anything else, there is always no denying that I am a man. This goes for Steve as well. Until one gets him started on showtunes or Broadway, you'd sometimes forget that the man is even gay to begin with, but that's another story for another day.

My point is that for most couples, the story of their gendered roles are re-written. This is abundantly true in the Indian community that lives in the USA. The wife may have the baby, but she's usually the one socialising while she leaves her husband to watch the kids during religious or cultural functions. My mother's pointed it out to me on various occasions. The man may be a talented cook, but he still like to kick back with his buddies to watch the game on the TV. I've seen it many many times, while my parents would take us on visits to friends' houses. I'm just throwing out random examples, but you get the point.

Even in traditionally formed heterosexual homes, even when there is a man and a woman, the gendered roles aren't so clearly divided along biological lines. People create for themselves the roles that work for them. Which, at the end of the day, we have done as well. Only, in our case, there is no assumption that one of us will do a certain task or chore based on our sex. When we come to an agreement about who does what, that's because we've figured out that it's how we want it to be done.

And if the question about who the male is and who the female is asks about which one of us does what in bed, that's a really personal question, which is none of anyone else's business.