Fall at the Greenmarket

I went to the Greenmarket two days ago in the late evening, an hour before it closed.  The market was down to a few stalls, with some tables scattered with last of the season heirloom tomatoes from New Jersey.  Dark, leafy greens, touched by the cold, reminiscent of dark soil, cold air and days growing shorter.  Bright piles of cranberry beans, newly dug potatoes, and heaps of carrots and other root vegetables.  One stall had sunchokes with black dirt still clinging to the nubby roots.  I found celery root, like gnarled troll feet, caked with dirt at one stand; in other places, bunched with green tops and cleaner.  I could hardly breathe, lest my impractical longing for every meal to be cooked with just these greenmarket vegetables escape and hang heavy in the night air.

I had a first taste of amber green Niagara grapes at the market – their sticky, juicy and candy-like sweetness in pleasant contrast with dark purple concord grapes.  The heady smell of a green and yellow quince, its fuzziness soft against my cheek.  Then rows of rich, deep orange pumpkins at Phillips Farm.  I recently read an article about Sarah Frey who grows heirloom pumpkins and recommends stuffing and baking baby pumpkins with Gruyere and spinach.  I wanted to do the same.

There was a sweet sadness in the air.  It’s Halloween today and soon Thanksgiving will be here.  I can feel time passing, my children growing bigger every day.  It was Diwali this past weekend, the festival of lights and my favorite time of year, and marked in my childhood home with a pumpkin dish – aloo kaddu – that was served with golden puffy puris and boondi ka raita.  I’ve only been back home for Diwali once or twice in the last twenty years, but the excitement of the celebration never fails to fill me each time Diwali arrives.  I wonder if it is that way for my children.

We’ve gone to Sandeep and Prathibha’s home every Diwali since Agastya turned one.  They host a puja that is so familiar because Sandeep is from the same part of India as my family; the food that he cooks is comfortingly similar too.  We attend the puja, light sparklers, eat dinner and then go home — bellies full, our hearts warmed by friendship and filled with the promise of another year.

Pistachio cake

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My heart beats so I can write.  Feel pen against paper.  It’s been so long.  I feel the beckon, the seduction.  Like the smell of warm pistachio cake rising from the oven.  Nuts, vanilla, and a hint of cardamom.  I’m not sure why I don’t give in.  Sometimes it feels as though I would stop breathing if I couldn’t write.  Yet I act indifferent, nonchalant.

It’s like cooking…I love to cook.  It’s always calling me, and I don’t do it.  I am so lazy.

Recently, I have been craving pistachio cake.  I ate a green pistachio cake decorated with raspberries and whipped cream for breakfast in Baltimore.  Before that, a pistachio macaroon cake at Laduree in Paris.  Then, pistachio financiers at Eric Kayser.  I remember how obsessed I got with pale green pistachio gelato in Italy – every gelateria, every day and often twice a day.  We went to so many gelaterias, found off lists and recommendations.  Come il Latte in Rome, the place off the main square in Bologna that served gelato pressed between two thin slices of cake, the shop near the mediaeval church in Bologna that had three different types of pistachio gelato, the chocolate store at the Spanish Steps where the owner told me how he had sourced his pistachios from Sicily – did I like the flavor?  I know nothing about making pistachio anything.  It’s about time to try.

I look through my cookbooks, nothing, and then I start searching online.  I find a Saveur recipe that promises me Maison Kayser style mini pistachio financiers with egg whites only and I turn out a fluffy, nutty, green cake that is surprisingly good.   Over the next two weeks I play with the recipe – two egg yolks, then four – all good.  Vanilla, cardamom…it’s a lot of fun.

I go shopping for shelled pistachios – they are brown outside – but yield a vibrant crumbly green flour with an intense smell of pistachios when ground.  The egg white batter of this cake does taste somewhat like melted pistachio gelato when the ground nuts are stirred in.  The browned butter adds rich, buttery notes (ah what else could it be).  I find myself adding vanilla each time, entirely optional, but I can’t seem to make any cake without a splash of vanilla.  I like the use of half white and half brown sugar. Chopped pistachios on top for crunch and more color.

Such an easy recipe and such a pleasure to make.

Ingredients

1 stick or 8 tbsp of butter, melted over a stove until brown and cooled
12 cup white sugar
12 cup light brown sugar
4 egg whites – can experiment with adding 2-4 egg yolks back in
Splash of vanilla, optional
Pinch of cardamom powder, optional
12 cup flour
12 cup finely ground pistachios, 12 cup finely chopped for topping + 2 tbsp finely ground almonds
1 tsp baking powder
1.  Mix the dry ingredients together and set aside.
2. Using a handheld blender, whisk the egg whites, sugars until smooth and drizzle in the melted butter.  Add vanilla if using.
3.  Mix in the dry ingredients, pour into baking dish and sprinkle chopped pistachios on top.
4.  Bake at 35oF for about 20 minutes until a stick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. The color will be golden brown.
Note – the original recipe asks to rest the batter in the fridge for an hour.  I lacked in patience.

Of love and chocolate cake

“Where were you?”

I’m suddenly shy. I don’t know what to say.

You have that look in your eyes. I have never been able to lie. You know what happened.

I was off exploring a passion, something so deeply fulfilling, I didn’t look back. I knew you were there. But my mind was elsewhere.

I have so much to say. The path that you took me on, it’s real. It started with you. It wasn’t a false start. The way just kept opening up.

I am still falling down the rabbit hole. The view is wondrous.

I have never been more challenged, more exhausted or more in love.  Which brings to mind a new favorite chocolate cake recipe.  It is dark, rich and dense, with a meringue-like crust and chewy interior.

One bite, and I am sealed forever.

Smitten Kitchen’s chocolate cake

Dry ingredients, whisked together

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup Dutch process unsweetened cocoa

3/4 tsp baking powder

Wet ingredients

9 ounces butter, melted on gentle heat and set aside to cool

7 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips, about a cup

4 eggs, yolks carefully separated to keep whites clean

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

3 tbsp water

1 cup sugar

pinch of salt

1.  Add chocolate chips to the melted butter with 2 tbsp water, and hand whisk until smooth.  Keep aside.

2. In a separate bowl, mix the sugar, egg yolks and 1 tbsp water.  Whisk together by hand for a minute until pale yellow and smooth. Add this mixture to the chocolate chip and melted butter mix.  Fold in the dry ingredients.

3.  Separately, using an electric beater, whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until the egg whites stand in stiff peaks.

4.  Fold in the egg whites gently into the chocolate mix.  Pour into prepared metal baking pan that is lined with baking parchment paper.

5.  Bake at 350F for about a half hour to 45 minutes until tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.

A favorite pot

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We had been discussing Christmas gifts.  “I know what we should get for you, Mommy,” said Agastya, very confidently, “a pot.” I was surprised.  “Why?”  I asked.  “Because you love to cook,” he said. I hadn’t realized that my then 5-year old knew this of me.  “But I don’t cook as well as nani or nan-amma“, I said.  “But your food also tastes good, mommy.  It’s very good.”

I swelled up with pride, grasping at that small compliment.  I carried it with me months later, into the Le Creuset store, where I stood gazing, as I always do, at their collection of enameled cast iron cookware, unable to decide what I really needed, hesitant to bring home yet another pot into my 5 x 5 kitchen.  My husband came over, and asked “Would you like one?” I shook my head “No.” He knew better.  We ended up choosing a large, very large shallow fry pan so I could pan roast vegetables in a single layer.  I liked the bright cherry red color, the tidy grasps on either side and no long fussy handle, the smooth creamy interior, the serious weight of the pot.

Now on most evenings I arrive home, wait for my pan to heat up, pour in some olive oil and toss in my vegetables with a sprinkle of kosher salt.  They roast slowly on low heat and emerge slightly charred, tender and sweet.  A warm vegetable side to be eaten just as is or with a dipping sauce (sriracha + fresh squeezed lemon juice + honey).  I especially like cooking Brussels sprouts, asparagus and winter squash this way.

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Imperfect meyer lemon olive oil cake

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My boys were away this afternoon and I woke up from an afternoon nap with a craving for cake and tea, faintly recalling a reference to olive oil cake made at dinner the previous night.  Which had brought to mind fruity olive oil, clementines, lemon zest, and of course a lazy Mediterranean vacation.

This cake came together quickly, but I took many liberties, following this recipe, but with Meyer lemon zest and juice instead of orange and in twice the amount the recipe called for.  I used turbinado sugar instead of white, didn’t sift anything and beat all the wet ingredients at once together and baked in my toaster oven, which one really shouldn’t do.  I ended up with a very lemony cake that was still quite good — especially warm and crumbly from the oven and sending off heady citrus aromas.  It was easy to eat big mouthfuls.

Note: I’ve adjusted the amount of lemon juice and zest used and have left salt out of the cake (although you can add a pinch).  Next time I plan to add a little more olive oil to the cake although it’s perfectly good with less.

Meyer lemon olive oil cake

Dry ingredients, mix well and keep aside

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder, aluminium-free

1/2 tsp baking soda

Wet ingredients

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs, at room temperature

1/3 1/2 cup olive oil (using a dry measuring cup)

1 tsp vanilla extract

Juice and zest of 2-3 Meyer lemons

1. Heat the oven to 350F and prepare a regular size loaf pan or 4 mini loaf pans by smearing a little butter all over and dusting with flour.  Shake out excess flour.

2. Beat sugar and eggs with a hand-held electric beater on high for 2-3 minutes.  Drizzle in olive oil, followed by the lemon juice and vanilla extract.  Turn off the beater and mix in the zest with a spatula.

3. Gently add in the dry ingredient mixture (flour, baking soda and baking powder) and pour into the loaf pan.  Bake in the pre-heated oven until a tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.  Remove from oven, allow to cool for several minutes and tap out of pan.

4.  Serve warm with ice cream, whipped heavy cream, mascarpone or as is.

Summer corn

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Sometimes, some decisions are not easy to accept. Life might make them. Or we might make them for ourselves.

In a short while, I have found myself everywhere. On and off carousels of different colors. Building relationships where the timing might not work.  Others rising, phoenix-like from ashes in the ground and taking life, quickly and suddenly. My mother always says that there are no coincidences. I think she’s right.

In the middle of all this, winter has been holding me in its grip. It’s February, close enough to March, with the days growing longer.  I cannot help but long for the easy days of summer. With summer tomatoes, heady summer peaches and yes, tender and green summer corn.

While shopping at Sobsey’s recently, I stumble upon fresh ears of corn from Florida. Maybe it’s a sign. Summer beckoning again.

I come home and make corn toast – which brings back my childhood in Calcutta. It’s fresh ears of corn sliced off the cob and pan roasted for a few minutes with a pat of butter, onions and a green bird’s eye chilli or two. A little bit of flour stirred in and then a cupful of milk that cooks for a little while to create a creamy, velvety béchamel-style sauce. Some grated aged cheddar.  Served warm on crispy toast.

Corn Toast
Serves 4

2 cups of fresh corn, sliced off the cob, about 2 medium ears
1/2 cup white onions, diced
1 green chilli, optional
2 tbsps butter
1 tbsp flour
1 cup of milk
1/2 cup of grated cheddar cheese, optional
Toast to serve

1. Heat the butter in a heavy bottomed pan on medium heat. When sizzling, throw in the onions and green chilli and sauté for a minute or two. Add the fresh corn kernels. Cook for a few minutes until the corn is tender and cooked through.

2. Now quickly stir in the flour, followed by the milk. Mix well to combine.

3. Let the mixture come to boil, reduce heat and allow to thicken, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat when the sauce starts coating the sides of the pan. Remember that the sauce will thicken further on cooling. Add salt to taste and optionally, about a 1/2 cup of grated sharp cheddar cheese.

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French fries for dinner

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In Food Rules, Michael Pollan says “The french fry did not become America’s most popular vegetable until industry took over the jobs of washing, peeling, cutting, and frying the potatoes — and cleaning up the mess. If you made all the french fries you ate, you would eat them much less often, if only because they’re so much work…”.  I think of his words as Agastya requests garlic fries, the same ones, he insists that my mother, his beloved nani had made for him before Hurricane Sandy.  I hadn’t been present.

How do I make French fries and should I really be doing this, I wonder, as my husband confidently claims that he knows how.  I put aside my fears of french fries as child food, squelch my anti-McDonald’s sentiments and let him make them from scratch.

It turns out to be simple.  Just potatoes, peeled, chopped and deep fried in an inch of very hot oil until they turn a warm gold.  There is no garlic powder at home so we smash some fat whole cloves of garlic and fry them in the same hot oil until they look a pale gold too.  Dusted with smoky paprika and coarse flakes of kosher salt.  Devoured piping hot and immediately.  Perhaps not as crispy as McDonald’s fries, but cut to my preferred thickness and much more satisfying.

As for Michael Pollan’s words? Yes, plenty of peeling, chopping, frying and cleaning…but possibly not enough to keep us away from home-made french fries.