28 June 2011


There's a couple of stories for this post, so please bear with me if you don't care for the more rambly of stories. There's the story of how I got to Chow, and the story about the $6 hero special.

It was a viciously slumpy month for us, and we hadn't had many people coming in. Neither of us could figure it out. The food was good. The people working here were friendly and kind. The wait times to get said food was reasonable. So what gives? This is about the time that we started getting aggressive calls from the deals websites, where you would offer X amount of food for 1/2 the amount of cost.

What they don't tell you is that the business only sees about 1/2 of what you paid for that voucher. The site offering the promotion keeps the other half. It's essentially like a loan, but with even worse rates than the worst loan shark ever. You're selling food for half the amount that it's worth, and then only seeing half of that money that you sold the voucher for. However, when you're in a tight spot, you start to consider those things feasible.

I reached a point of frustration, and said, "What about the folk who come here every day? If we're willing to sell our food for a fraction of what it's worth, and consider it promotion budget (advertising budget), then why can't we just offer the savings directly to the customers?" "Good point", he said. So we hatched the $6 hero deal. You get just the sandwich (no cheese, no Chow Slaw, no pickle. Which also means that the packaging is slashed by 75%, because now you just need to pack the sandwich in a piece of parchment paper, some foil, and a paper bag if the customer wants. With the regular heroes, it's the slaw, placed into a ramekin with its lid, the pickle, wrapped in foil, a fork, because you need something to eat the slaw with, and then the bag to carry that whole shebang with you. Yipes!

At the end of the day, it was cheaper for us too. And it made it so that people got to try our awesome sandwiches. And it meant that we could give people exactly what they wanted. It also meant that during our historically slow times (between 12 and 2), we could get more people to come in. The response was spectacular. People loved the fact that they could get a Kosher, vegan, organic sandwich for the cost of a couple of cups of coffee at certain national branded coffee chain. What's even better is that if you really did want the pickle or the slaw, you could request the stuff and pay a little extra, at your option.

So Cliff said, "It's like when you open up to the world with generosity, the universe brings it back to you."

It inspired us to really take a look at our menu, and look at the things that have gone down in cost, things that are easier to have made, because now everyone knows how to do them, and where we could offer lower prices and keep the "extras" on the side. We went through and pulled back the cost of a couple of the tapas, decreased the cost of the hero (now $10 instead of $12, and the cheese is $2 extra; so many people didn't get the cheese that it didn't seem fair to charge them for something they didn't want). We also decreased the cost of some of the desserts (cupcake, pound cake, etc).

Again, it was about opening up our arms, and letting folk know that we're thinking about them. Since we started getting a better price for our organic sugar and flour, we could afford to cut back the cost of those two things.

So now, a sandwich costs $10 (normal price), and a cupcake is $2.75. For a little more than what you used to pay for just a sandwich, you get a sandwich /and/ a dessert. And so now, people are actually ordering them way more frequently than they ever have before.

Which kind of brings me back to how I started working here in the first place.

It was back in November of 2007, and Steve and I had just moved to New York city. He had a job at the time, and was pulling in decent money. I didn't have to work, but I didn't want to faff about the house, doing nothing at all. However, I did love to cook (always had) and had a few copies of my cookery book with me. My Steve had let me know that a friend of a friend was working for NYU SEAL (an animal rights club), and they needed help with cooking for about 50 people, on a $50 budget.

In Manhattan.

Also, nobody could afford to do it from a restaurant, because they didn't have that kind of money.

Also, they wanted it vegan, and local, and seasonal.

Also, they couldn't afford to pay me.

I wasn't bothered about the money. I just love a challenge like that. I let Ashleigh (this was the person in charge of the food) that not only could we feed everyone who came, but we could feed them rice, beans, salad, and a vegetable dish, along with some kind of apple crisp. Yes, for less than the $50.

She was thrilled, and offered to buy me lunch at my favourite restaurant: Sacred Chow. Every time I came up to New York, I would jump in a Taxi and ask to be taken to Sacred Chow for at least one meal there. And at the end of each meal, I'd get a sinner bar. When Ashleigh offered to take me there, I jumped at the chance, so that the two of us could meet in person, and chatter away at each other about the food.

Apparently, she could offer a kitchen in one of the dorms nearby. It was fairly ill-equipped, but we'd have a lot of helpers. Also, the helpers had plenty of heart. I realise that this all sounds like a bad movie script, but it all really did happen.

You see, when you grow up poor, one of the things that you realise early on is that you can't always offer money to a cause, even though you may feel strongly about its goals. So you offer your time, your talents, and your heart. My mother was very good at this. Every week, when the Hindu temple in South Florida was a house that the community bought together, and filled with an altar and the things needed for a temple, my mother would pile us all into the car hours before the services started, loaded with food (at least a rice dish, and sometimes a rice dish and a vegetable dish), and all the kids. We'd get there very early, clean everything up, make it look presentable, and set out the floor mats for the people to come in and sit on. Then, we'd leave hours after everything was done.

Whatever the other people did or didn't think of it, whether or not they gave her any credit for it, whether they were jerks (and they were) or decent humans (rare, if ever) about freely asking my mother (who had a budget about 1/10 of what most of them worked with) for food (seriously), my mother was there every sunday, with large amounts of food. Why? Because she knew how to take a few dollars, and make them feed lots of people. I share that talent.

Ashleigh and I chatted for at least a couple of hours, in the empty restaurant.


Someone had slammed the door to the basement.


"You guys should NOT be eating here. The owner is a HORRIBLE man, and exploits his workers." (Side note: turns out she was stealing. How charming, right? The boss is a lovely man, for the record.)


She reached the door. She walked out, and slammed the outside door.

The outside door that has one of those hydraulic things that keeps it from slamming.

Made impotent by the uncaring door, the girl kicked the door with all her might, and stormed off. Ashleigh and I looked at each other in stunned silence, and burst out laughing. The waitperson apologised profusely for that particular little scene, and we both let her know that it was too funny /not/ to laugh at.

At the end of the meal, I approached the waitperson, and said, "OK, so it looks like you'll need a new worker."

She asked me to drop off my resume the next day.

The rest, as they say, is history.

What I'm getting at is that I was at the right place at the right time. I was there, because through some weird unconnected events, I was giving of my time and talents to a cause I believed in. They didn't have much money, and had to feed many people on very little money. The food turned out fantastic. Everyone was very impressed that we managed it for such a small amount of money.

Fast forward to a year or two later. Ashleigh called me to place an order for catering from Chow for her SEAL organisation.

I met my darling husband, because I was sitting in a vegan chat room a few years back, and sharing my cooking techniques with people. They would say, "Dino, I've got ____, ____, and ___, and I'm hungry now. Can you tell me what to do with that?" And I would. I'd give them about five or six different options for the stuff they had around the house. Then they'd come back in 30 minutes, and rave about how the food was so good.

Later, when I needed a vegan wallet, and mentioned it in passing (because carrying the leather one was making me a little ill whenever I thought of where it came from), Steve piped up and let me know that he makes wallets, and that he'd be sending me one, for free, "... because you help so many people out in so many ways, and I'm happy to do this for you."

Five years later, that gesture of kindness turned into a marriage that's given me more love and happiness than I could have ever imagined possible. And now that it's legal for us to get married, we've booked the Judson church, where Steve proposed to me (again) on Pride Sunday to ask me to officially marry him.

I said yes.

10 June 2011

Onion Sandwiches

I came into the office with my breakfast, and bossman gave me an odd look. "I like onion sandwiches," I said matter-of-factly. He agreed that onion sandwiches are indeed a lovely treat.

My mother used to say that I would take forever to make yoghurt rice (and I still do, with my own home made soy yoghurt that I make every few days). It's significant, because in a South Indian home, yoghurt rice is a very common snack, meal, finish to a meal, whatever. You have it when you want something fast. I liked it with lots of chopped vegetables (tomato, onion, cucumber) and spices (mustard seed, cumin seed, urad daal, toasted in fat) and curry leaves. In other words, yoghurt rice would take me 15 minutes to make, while most people are content with yoghurt + rice, which takes five minutes to make.

I tell you all that to tell you this: my onion sandwiches are no different. I like things just so. First, I liberally rub a baguette with a clove of garlic. This gives the bread a most tempting garlicky taste. I split the bread in half, and fry the cut sides in olive oil over medium-high heat, so that they get a nice crispy crust on the inside, and get pillowy and warm on the outside. This way, when I bite in, the outside is not toasted, but soft and fluffy. While the bread is toasting, I slice off a couple of slices of white (and if I have it, red as well) onions, and salt them. I let them hang out in the salt until they're a little tender. If you slice your onions thinly enough (as you should), they should be salted in about three minutes.

On a warm summer day, it's a most refreshing treat.


It's times like yesterday that I'm eternally grateful to have a well-stocked kitchen. It was hotter than the seven hells yesterday, and I sincerely did not feel like getting into an elaborate cooking thing. I felt like my body was going to melt into a puddle on the floor. I felt my hydration levels dropping ever lower on the walk home. I could feel the throbbing, pulsing heat rising up from the concrete sidewalk, as I manfully marched on, past the people sitting outside, fanning themselves in a futile attempt to battle the pressing humidity and heat.

It's been a few years since we moved up to New York, and it has made me less tolerant of heat in general, but yesterday would have been unbearable by anyone's standards. I got home, and decided on cold noodles. Yes, I would definitely be having rice later on, but for now, I needed to cool myself off.

That morning, I had thrown a piece of kombu (dried kelp) and a small handful of shiitake mushrooms (dried and sliced) into a couple of litres of water. Unlike boiling, this produces a light sort of broth that you can use as a cold soup base. I cooked up a couple of servings of noodles. Somen noodles (the really thin ones) are ideal, but you can use whatever you have. It'll turn out just fine.

I also had a fair bit of kimchi that my brother had sent me home with the last time I visited him in DC. I made a quick sauce with an apple, some sesame oil (just a few drops; a little goes a long way), five or six thai chiles, garlic, ginger, onion, some soy sauce, and some of that kombu broth I'd made. The sauce was spicy and tasty.

Once the noodles were boiled, I rinsed them off under cold running water. I topped them with julienned zucchini, the sauce, some kimchi, some of the water from the kimchi, and the iced broth. It was incredibly refreshing.

What was even more refreshing was the air conditioner. Let's be honest, it really was that hot.

09 June 2011

Gay Archie comic

Check it out.

I am very pleased that there's an openly gay character, and that he's getting his own comic. I ordered the first comic he appeared in, as well as the 4 comic run that they're doing for him. I used to read Archie comics as a kid, and I'm thrilled that they're keeping with the times.

Apparently, the response to him has been fantastic. It's the first time they've had to order a reprint of any issue of the comics. I really wish that there were gay or lesbian characters, and that their lives were portrayed as normal, just like everyone else's. I don't know that it would have made anything easier in my particular situation, but I think that it would have been nice to know that I'm not weird.

Colour me surprised and happy.

07 June 2011

Me & my Nephew

This is me with my nephew, Vinayak on his birthday. Just thought I'd share a happy moment for all of you.

Corn Chowder

I was making a corn chowder yesterday, and I didn't want for it to have heinous amounts of fat, nor did I want to throw in starch (like wheat starch, corn starch, etc), because it doesn't really add much to the party with regards to flavour or nutrition. Interestingly enough, I was just talking to my mother over the weekend about how the cost of coconut milk has skyrocketed, and how it's getting prohibitively expensive.

Then, I started to do some digging. Every site that I see promoting silken tofu says that you can use the pureed stuff in cream soups, but then leaves it at that. Does that mean that you puree it, and then dump in a bunch of it? Do you puree it in the food processor, and use it as a thick creamy thing, or do you puree it in the blender, and let 'er rip with a bit of liquid of your choice, and stir it in? Can you cook it down, or should it be relatively uncooked? How about freezing or thawing or boiling or all kinds of other considerations? How much should you use?

First and foremost, let me make one thing clear: you don't /have/ to use silken tofu. You can, if that's what you have, but if you don't have any, or don't feel like tracking any down, just use whatever tofu you have lying around in the house, or whatever is cheapest at your market. You're throwing this into the blender to blend down to an absolute puree, so it doesn't really matter.

I'm just sick of all these recipes demanding that you use a particular thing, when it's not even necessary. Y'know, like those ones that ask you to use MELTED MARGARINE.* What is melted margarine? OIL. So why not use oil? It's infuriating. In the same way, since you're going to be blending the heck out of it anyway, just use whatever you have, and the heck with what everyone tells you to do.

Secondly, remember that tofu, when frozen, changes texture. This goes for pureed tofu, but far less so than for fresh tofu. This means that if you are going to be using tofu to replace cream, please use exactly however much you need, and use it up. Don't use frozen tofu. I wish that I didn't have to make this distinction, but I do, because not everyone is familiar with the stuff, and won't know not to do so.

Finally, if you are going to be using extra firm, or firm tofu, please don't cook it too terribly much. If you've ever had tofu that's been put into miso soup, and sat there, you'll know that the texture changes completely. For the best results, keep your tofu cream aside, and stir it in just before serving, or at the last minute to the pot of soup. If you do have silken tofu, and you grind it, you'll have more leeway to work with to make the magic happen.

How about the ratios? How much tofu to how much liquid?

Here's the exciting part. Yesterday, for two cups of coconut milk, I used about four pounds of tofu! Two cups is about the standard size of coconut milk can that you see in the store. This means that the coconut milk that you bought for however much can be stretched out with tofu and water to make far more than what you started with. To scale this back, it works out to about 1/2 cup of coconut milk per pound of tofu. This should provide you with enough cream to stir into a pretty decent sized pot of soup. This also means that you can scale this down further. You can use 1/2 lb of tofu for 1/4 cup of coconut milk, or 1/4 lb of tofu for 2 TB of coconut milk.

This means that people with less than normal food processors, or blenders (I'm looking at you, people with mini choppers who use them as food processors*) can still do the job, because you can scale down as far as you need to or scale up as needed.

So. Recipe time, right?

Corn Chowder

1 tsp canola, peanut, or olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped finely
1 1/2 tsp thyme
2 medium potatoes, diced
2 ears of corn, taken off the cob
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper (or, lots more if you're like me and love black pepper in chowder)
2 cups of water

Tofu cream
2 TB coconut milk
1/4 lb tofu

In a stock pot, sautee the onions over medium high heat until they become translucent. Add the thyme in with the onions, and stir everything around until the herbs are evenly distributed with the onions and the fat. You do this so that the essential oils from the thyme have a chance to release their flavours efficiently.

While the onion cooks, chop up the potatoes into 1/2 inch cubes. Since there's only two potatoes, you should be able to do this relatively quickly, even if you're a slow chopper. When the onions are cooked, add the diced potatoes, and stir the veggies around in the pot until everything is evenly combined. Drop down the heat to medium low, and put the lid onto the pot. While that hangs out and cooks slowly, take the kernels of corn off of the cob. When the potatoes have cooked for 7 minutes in the pot, add the corn, water, salt, and black pepper. Increase the heat to medium high again.

While the water comes up to the boil, combine the coconut milk and tofu in a blender. Blend until the tofu is pureed smooth. Add water (from the soup pot) to thin out the tofu cream, until it resembles the consistency of a thick heavy cream. Turn off the heat once the potatoes are tender. Let the whole thing sit for about five minutes to cool a bit. Stir in the cream, and serve immediately, with a rain of lovely freshly ground black pepper, chives, or soup crackers, as suits your fancy.

The reason that I'm a fan of using tofu instead of all coconut milk is twofold: for one thing, the tofu adds protein to the mix. Yes, I am well aware that the coconut milk, corn, and potatoes all contain protein of their own. However, the tofu does have a good fair bit of concentrated protein that will boost up the whole thing. Also, the tofu means that I can reduce the amount of fat that I'm using. In the past, for a recipe like this, I would have cheerfully used 1/2 cup of coconut milk. I've managed to cut back on the coconut milk drastically, and still keep that rich, creamy texture that I like. I've also not gone off the deep end to the other extreme, where I'm afraid of fat. Coconut milk and olive oil/canola oil/peanut oil are healthy fats. When used in moderation, they're good for the body, and help absorb fat-soluble vitamins. They are a vital part of your diet. While you don't want to overdo them, you also don't want to avoid them completely.

Besides. Fat tastes good. Just because I'm eating healthy doesn't mean that I have to eat like I'm sick, right? I can still enjoy the things I like while making minor substitutions which improve the overall food, while not going to any extremes. I hope you will also agree with me, and give the recipe a try! Corn chowder is absolutely delicious, and the perfect way to use up all that lovely corn that's coming into season.

*For the record, I'm using these lines in a humorous fashion. It's not meant to offend, or to seriously call into question how people like things, or do things. Sometimes, in the written word, the tone is not always clear. Let me make it clear now that it's meant to be taken in a jokey manner, and not in a ranty manner.
I was reading a forum post somewhere, where a person off-handedly mentioned being gay in a small town in the USA. Let me preface this with a couple of disclaimers: I have never (and will never, gods willing) lived in a truly small town where I was old enough to know or care. I've never had to deal with an entire large group of random strangers who know all of my business (shut up, the Internet doesn't count) who I'm meeting on a regular basis.

Steve, however, did. Whenever we go out with his dad, there are bound to be at least two or three families out and around who recognise not only him, but (by extension) Steve as well, and in many cases, me. It's eerie. The next door neighbours at his father's house know me as one of his mother's son-in-laws, and will stop over for a chat if I'm outside and they're outside at the same time. It's eerie, and unsettling, because I have no clue who these people are, but they seem to know all about me.

Again, I'm reinforcing this with the fact that I don't have to live there, and any interactions I've had with folk out there have been friendly, warm, loving, and kind.

I find that in smaller towns, folk aren't as hateful as you would think that they are. Yes, you have hateful people in the churches who preach more of their brand of loathsome dogma, but you also have plenty of good decent people who are happy to let you get on with your life, as long as you let them get on with theirs. These are the same people who vote republican on the ballots, and are generally conservative.

However, I call myself a liberal, or moderate, or whatever, not because I have a fundamental understanding of how I vote, but rather because that's where my life and the conclusions I've drawn have lead me over the years. I didn't vote for Obama because I knew where he stood on all the issues that matter to me. I voted for him because people I care about, and whose opinions I respect deeply asked me to vote for him.

Huh. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

You see, I'm not trying to make myself sound like an idiot. I'm not. I'm intelligent. I am college educated. I enjoy reading, and learning new things. However, I am also able to be honest with myself, and that's what I'm doing right now: being strictly honest.

So why is it that I look with derision on folks who do the same thing that I did? They don't vote one way because they necessarily understand what all the implications of voting that way are. They do it because people that they love and whose opinions they respect are telling them to.

However, in interacting with the very same people (like me) whose rights they are restricting with their voting, the interaction totally becomes an "in the moment" experience, where two people share of themselves in a way that leaves both parties in a better place than when they started.

For the record, there is absolutely no doubt that I'm gay. You'd have to be outright ignorant of what being gay means to miss that glaringly obvious fact. The fact becomes even more glaring when I'm travelling with Steve, which I do frequently. However, in the small towns that Steve and I have visited (including the suburban towns that are largely conservative), we have been treated with kindness and warmth.

I guess what I'm trying to get at is that to make any perceptible change in the world, we need to live our truth. Whether this be about being gay, being vegan, being a person of character, or whatever, living in your truth is about the most valuable thing you can do to propagate it.

If you're out there yelling at people that they are wrong, and horrible, you're going to end up alienating them, and will have very few people who want to be in your presence. If you firmly and matter-of-factly state your truth ("I'm gay," I'm vegan," etc), people have the chance to get to know you, and see that your day-to-day life is really no different from their own. The threatening part of the unknown "other" starts to fade away, and people start to see each other as people.

Let me finish this off by saying that I don't want to move to a small town. That's really not something that would work for my more fast-paced lifestyle that I enjoy having. I'm also not trying to deny the absence of hateful bigots. Those will be anywhere you go, and in a big city, it's easier to ignore them, because there are so many other voices to drown them out. There's a reason that so many gay kids flee to large metropolitan cities.

However, I am saying that it'd be nice to avoid lumping all people from a particular walk of life into one category, and deciding that they're all worthless. At the end of the day, we're all people, and we have value. When you give people a chance, you're often surprised at the goodness and kindness inherent in humanity that comes out. It doesn't help anyone to demonise the "other side".

06 June 2011

Onion Samosa

1 onion, 1 bunch of cilantro, 5 Thai Bird chiles, 5 cm of ginger, 5 cloves garlic. Turmeric, salt, ajwain, coriander, cumin, garam masala. 1 1/2 cups of poha.

05 June 2011

National Geographic

I remember spending hours watching National Geographic documentaries. This was back in the day when you had the local PBS stations carrying a good selection of documentaries, and they'd advertise a particularly cool one, and you'd wait for it to come out. Then they'd re-air it a few more times before the next round of awesome footage came out. I remember listening to the theme song for the National Geographic documentaries, and would likely recognise it immediately.

And then I saw this comment on the video:

FINALLY FOUND IT! EVER SINCE MADAGASCAR CAME OUT I'VE BEEN SEARCHING FOR THIS SONG!!!!! THE NAME OF IT (The chase scene, right after Alex becomes 'wild' and chases Marty for the first time)

That makes me sad. I hope that discovering what the song is will encourage the person to go seek out the work that National Geographic has done. The magazines are still some of the coolest things ever. They're printed in such high quality paper that people hold onto them for years, as they would any sort of book.

02 June 2011

I talk frequently (in life, on my blog, etc) about popping spices, adding aromatics, then tomatoes, then dry spices, etc to make a rough gravy, then adding veg, beans, or whatever. This video does a top-notch job of showing, in video, the exact steps, and how it works, from adding the oil, to adding the mustard seeds, the urad daal, etc etc. OK, it's in Malayalam. I don't speak Malayalam either. I speak Tamil. (Granted, the two languages are extremely similar, so I can more or less follow her, but the point is that the /video/ is excellent.) Essentially, she starts with a couple tablespoons of oil, a few healthy pinches of mustard seeds, and urad daal. Notice how she waits for the seeds to pop and splutter before adding anything. That's how you know that the oil is hot enough to pop the mustard seeds. If the mustard seeds don't pop, the flavour doesn't come out.

All the other steps are pretty straightforward from there. If you're interested in any kind of South Indian cooking, watch the video, and just take notice of the technique. Also, the Keralites make the best food in India (sorry, Amma; we both know it's true--anyone who uses that much coconut every day has my vote), hands down, and I'm not even /from/ that state. She's got solid technique, and a charming personality. She was suggesting a few times (as a Keralite would) that you could quite happily add grated coconut, coconut milk, etc. Anything you say, Ms. Nair. <3

In this particular video, she's showing you how to use up leftover idli to make a sort of curried idli masala thingy.

That white powder she uses (aside from the salt) that she calls "Kaya Podi" is dried banana powder, which is another very typical Keralite thing.

01 June 2011

Picky eating revisited

The last time we talked about my picky eating habits, we were tackling bell peppers, and my sister-in-law's treatment of such, with the multiple peppers, corn, and black bean salad (called, in my house, "Deb's Salad", even when I warp it out of all recognition of her original, such as adding her most dreaded food: tomatoes), which taught me to not only tolerate, but enjoy red, yellow, and orange bell peppers. It's a feat I thought I'd never conquer, and I'm pretty happy that I am now open to this new thing that I never liked as a kid.

If people can acquire a taste for stuff like beer, which is not exactly health food, I can learn to like the multiple vegetables I've thus far deemed horrible.

Now that I've tackled peppers, I think I'm ready for aubergines. While I was visiting my friend Jamie's mum in upstate NY, there were more vegetables than I could count! They were all of excellent quality, and in abundance. Jamie commented that seeing the dinner table was like a Thanksgiving meal, with all the varieties. It really was most enjoyable.

Anyway. Her fiancee grilled the whole baby aubergines (each was the size of a small fist, but long too). They had no seeds to speak of. they were also firm to the touch when we started, and tender and juicy when finished. He served them with nothing more than a smear of tahini. That was it. No lemon juice, no herbs, no garlic, no nothing else. Just the aubergine with a bit of tahini. I liberally dosed mine with some salt, but neither he nor Jamie bothered with it. They enjoyed it as is.

It was quite tasty. The grilling brought out something different (there was apple wood in the smoking part of the grill) that regular roasting or frying doesn't quite do. The texture wasn't as slimy as I recall it being. Instead, it was cooked while retaining just a hint of firmness. And the tahini was absolutely the best complement to it ever.

I only ate one, but I think that I can bring myself to try more, as time goes on. Again, I'm not trying to rush at this, and get myself to like everything all the time, but am working, slowly but surely, at growing an appreciation for the plant kingdom.

EDIT: Here's something else I never saw myself doing: eating carrots by itself. Martha Stewart's carrot salad did the trick: