Friday, September 23, 2005

Colonial fascination

Sara Donati's Into the Wilderness has got me interested in the Colonial/Revolutionary period of US history so in an uncharacteristic mode, I am reading non-fiction for pleasure. I picked up David McCullough's John Adams at the library this week; he's one of the most accessible historians for those of us who are challenged by dry history writing. And since John and Abigail had such a lively correspondence, much of the book reads like an epistolary novel.

I'm still amazed at the big gaps in my knowledge after so damn much schooling. I wrote my first master's thesis while at UC Davis on some women writers in late 18th C England (Wollstonecraft, early Jane Austin, Sarah Scott, Charlotte Lennox, etc.) but it is amazing how little I know about the history and literature of the same period on the other side of the Atlantic. That's a pretty big gap since the American Revolution and ideas of liberty clearly had an impact on concepts of feminism for the period. I studied French writings and British reactions to the French revolution but not the American stuff. Geographical proximity bias? Genetic bias (with my Brit of a mum)? I can't quite believe my advisors let me get away with such a big gap of knowledge, but I guess that is the difference between an MA and a PhD.

Anyway, so far John Adams is proving to be a very good read and hopefully will tide me over till my copy of the next in the Donati/Wilderness series, Dawn on a Distant Shore, arrives from Amazon.

And since I can't just buy one book at a time (gotta get that super saver shipping, right?), I also decided to splurge and get David Maine's Fallen (in hardback!) and another Dan Zanes CD, Rocket Ship Beach, for my kids (ok, ok, and for me too. I confess that I love his kid music more than a lot of music intended for grown ups.)

Thursday, September 22, 2005

At long last

Finally! The long, yet relatively simple, recipe.

I'm finally posting about the fabulous Pulau (Biryani) rice dish I learned in the Indian cooking class I took in August. I was talking to Laura last Friday about it and, as she put it, it does require one pain-in-the-butt shopping trip to the Indian market to stock up on the spices, but pretty much all the exotic stuff is shelf stable so once you have it in the house, you can easily make this dish.

Don't be put off by the long list of ingredients or the long instructions--this really is pretty darn easy and fast to make. To encourage you to read the whole long recipe, I present a photo of the finished dish:
The finished dish (this time made with rock shrimp) with a bowl of raita on the side.

Shahi Vegetable Pulau (Vegetable Biryani)
(with optional protein addition)

recipe from Bhanu Hajratwala
Serves 4-6 with generous portions

Ingredients are (conveniently) listed in the order in which they are used.

The Rice:
2 C basmati long grain rice
5 C water
2 T ghee
2 1/2 t salt
1 T Garam Masala
3/4 t tumeric

1. Wash and drain the rice. (Put the rice in a bowl and pour on cold water. Swish it around a bit and the water becomes cloudy. Drain off the cloudy water and do it again, and again, and again until the water is relatively clear.)
2. Mix all the ingredients above in a rice cooker. (If not using a rice cooker, bring rice and all ingredients to a boil, lower heat and simmer till all the water is evaporated and the rice is cooked.)
The rice should look like this when it is done.

The Vegetables:
1/4 C ghee (or mix 2 T ghee with the rest canola oil--ghee can be really expensive)
8 sticks of cinnamon, approximately 2 inches long each
12 whole cloves
12 green cardamom pods, whole
6 star anise pods, whole
1 t cumin seeds
12 fresh curry leaves (can be bought for about $1 a pack at Indian grocery stores. If you can't get them, you can either leave them out of the recipe or substitute 6 dried bay leaves--not the same flavor, but not a bad alternate).
1 large potato, peeled and diced into 1 inch cubes
6 green, hot chilies, decapped and cut into 1/2 inch pieces (if you are making this for kids or people who don't like heat, cut down the number of chilies. My mild version uses 2 jalapenos that I have seeded so I still get a little of the flavor without the heat.)
1 C frozen mixed vegetables (peas, carrots, corn, beans, etc.)
1 C cauliflower florets, small
1/2 C broccoli florets, small
1/4 C raisins
1/4 C unsalted cashews
1/4 C whole almonds
1/4 unsweetened shredded dried coconut
1 1/2 t salt
OPTIONAL: protein of your choice--1-2 C of cubed tofu, shrimp, small pieces of raw boneless chicken, etc.

1. Heat ghee (and oil if using) in a large pot.
2. Add the cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom and star anise till brown, and cover. Saute at medium heat till spices brown.
3. Add the cumin seeds and curry leaves (if using), cover and brown.
4. Add the potatoes and chilies, cover and cook till potatoes are almost cooked (approximately 10 minutes) stirring frequently.
5. Add all the vegetables and cook covered for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. If using the optional chicken or tofu, add now.
6. Add the raisins, cashews, almonds, and coconut.
7. Add the salt and stir well. If using the optional shrimp, add now.
8. Cook for two minutes, remove from heat and set aside.
Here are your vegetables with or without added protein (I used rock shrimp this time).

The Garnishes:
1 medium onion sliced very thin into half circles
oil for frying onion--about 1/4 inch in the bottom of a small pot
1/4 C chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 C pomegranate seeds (optional--I've never had them but I bet they would taste great and look beautiful)

1. Heat oil on medium high and deep fry onion till dark brown. Spread on paper towel to drain oil.

Yes, your onions really should be this dark of a brown.

Serving (two options)

Option 1--mix it all up
1. Put all the cooked rice in a large bowl and gently separate the rice grains so it isn't lumpy.
2. Add the vegetables and stir gently to mix.
3. Mound on a serving platter and garnish with the fried onions, cilantro and optional pomegranate seeds.

Option 2--keep it sort of separate (what I usually do since my kids like the rice part without the vegetables mixed in)
1. Pile the rice on a platter. Make a shallow well and put the vegetable mixture in the middle.
2. Top with friend onions, cilantro and optional pomegranate seeds. Can also put slices of cucumber, tomatoes, raw onions, etc. around the edge of the platter to decorate.

Pulau can be served warm or at room temperature (which makes it great for buffets and potlucks). It is a main course, but can also be served along with other dishes like a chicken or lamb curry.

(Note: The spices are left whole in this dish. If you will be serving this to people not used to Indian food, you may want to go through the rather laborious step and pick out all the whole spices and leaves after you finish the stir fry. I am way too lazy to do this. I issue a warning to diners not to eat the cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, anise and curry leaves. A nice host would probably lay out little bowls on the table so that people have a place to deposit the spices they pick out.)

At this point you may think I am insane to call this a simple recipe. Let me explain. I made this last Friday and in the morning (one could also do this the night before) I got everything prepped: I washed the rice, I set out all the spices I would need, washed, cut up and measured vegetables and set them all aside.

When I came back from the playground with my kids at 5 pm, I mixed up the stuff for the rice and set it in the rice cooker, started the stirfry for the vegetables, and chopped up some cilantro for the garnish. The vegetables only took about 15-20 minutes total and I fried up the onion for the garnish at the same time. By the time the rice was done cooking (about 25 minutes in my rice cooker) everything was ready to be assembled. Dinner was ready by 5:30 I kid you not. There was even time to grate some cucumber into yogurt and make a simple raita.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

I'm getting hooked on these interludes...

Interlude of the day: take a look at this blog entry at The Panopticon for a hilarious cartoon of man-vs.-sweater.

Yesterday evening I intended to go to my knitting group, but then realized that I had screwed up the Ribby Cardigan for about the 18th time. So I ripped it out back down to the armhole decreases (again) and resigned myself to knitting the top portion the way it is written in the pattern--fronts, arms and backs separate and then sewn together along the raglan seams. I am definitely not smart enough to modify this pattern in its entirety from flat to round (though I still am pleased that I won't have to seam the sides and arm lengths). When it came time to leave to go down to Sweetwaters Cafe I was ensnared in a huge tangle of wool (see photo number 9 from The Panopticon's cartoon) that had to be tamed and kept me home.

It was a good thing I did rip it out because I discovered that I had been really sloppy when it came to putting the stitches back on the needles the last time I ripped it. One side was about 4 stitches shorter than the other. Did I forget to count? Yup, looks that way!

While watching House last night (my Hugh Laurie crush deepens) I discovered that following a pattern can be much easier than struggling with your own interpretation.I think I'll leave improvisation to the kitchen for the time being. I almost finished the left front side of the cardigan and only screwed up (or only noticed that I'd screwed up) once doing a K2tog rather than a SSK (blame Hugh for distracting me).

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Book interlude

And yet another interlude before I get to the long, yet relatively simple recipe.

I have to report on a fine read recommended by Eva--Clara Callan by Richard B. Wright. I picked up the book from the library on Friday evening and finished it Saturday evening. I'm not recommending it merely because it is speedy (though the format--letters and journal entries--does make for quick reading) but because it was an excellent read and it has joined the ranks of my recommended books.

It started off with a set-up I thought I knew, stable older sister who stays in the small town in Ontario, wilder younger sister who seeks her fortune in NYC, but it managed to surprise and delight and show how the "safer" choice can sometimes be the much riskier one. The three main character's voices were so clear and distinct and the author didn't play favorites--despite the initial indications that the younger sister is going to be flighty and annoying, he manages to keep her spirit intact and still show her depth of character and feeling. And the older sister has a wry sarcasm that alleviates any preachyness.

Normally I wouldn't have had the opportunity to start and finish a book in 24 hours, butSaturday I had a strange headache--not quite a migraine but something that rendered me pretty damn non-functional. I'm still not quite sure what the hell it was or why it descended like a cloud, but after fighting it in the morning I gave in and retreated to a darkened bedroom (and was relieved and grateful that Brian was free to manage the rugrats). Reading the book was one thing I could do (no knitting, no cooking, and no writing) so read it I did.

I also recently finished Madeline is Sleeping, another of the National Book Award finalists from last year. Blech. Magical realism with no point. Showy and gimmicky. I also made a stab at the last NBA finalist, Florida by Christine Schutt and found it so unpleasant that I gave up after 50 pages. So now that I have read four and attempted to get into the fifth of the finalists and only could stand one of the books, (Joan Silber's Ideas of Heaven which I loved), I'm not sure what to make of Rick Moody (the head judge that year) and his criteria for good fiction. I am relieved to know that it wasn't simple misogyny that inspired critic's objections to the chosen authors, though there was way too much implied sexism for me to feel comfortable saying that I agree wholeheartedly with the critiques many major critics wrote.

On a much more positive note, an author I admire, David Maine, just published his second novel, Fallen. I loved his first book, The Preservationist, which is a retelling of Noah and the flood--gritty and funny in the telling but surprisingly beautiful in the end. His new book stays with biblical source and focuses on Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel. It also employs a reverse narrative which I love, but which I think is incredibly difficult to pull off. Charles Baxter's First Light is an example of the narrative moving back in time where it really works. Janet Maslin in the NYTimes thought that it worked in Fallen too--she also called the book "quirky" and "delectable" which bodes very well indeed.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Quirky photo interlude

While I am attempting to type in a ridiculously long recipe (for what turns out to be a relatively simple-to-assemble dish) I leave you with a link to some of the most whimsical, lovely food-and-tiny-toy tableaus:

John emailed me with these last week and I have been repeatedly visiting them when I need a dose of whimsy.

Note--the site is in French but is manageable even if you don't read the language. If you have trouble navigating it, here are a few tips: Once you get past the intro page (just a fancy script with some pretty dots and French text floating around) there is a small dark gray dot at the lower right hand corner of your screen. It brings up the site menu--go to the "Galerie" listing and click on a subset for a tour of the photos. Small arrows down by the dark gray dot allow you to navigate the photos.