September 25, 2010

In My Godmother's Kitchen

Some places are sacred. Not always for religious reasons, but because they are so very important. My Godmother’s kitchen is one of those places.

Annie has been in my life since I was born. More than just my Mother’s friend from years ago, she was there at every birthday party, at every recital, at every holiday. I had grandmothers, I have aunts, I have cousins, but she was something more and in my mind, deserved a title – and Godmother fit perfectly.

She introduced me to worlds that I may not have appreciated without her - modern dance, water color painting, and foreign films. Through all of our amazing outings and experiences, the thing I’ll remember most, however, is her kitchen table. There were enough sugar cookies decorated, valentines made, and laughter shared at that table to last a lifetime. We used to make chutney together as holiday gifts; if I concentrate I can still smell the simmering apples…

It was around that sacred table that we once again found ourselves laughing and cooking this weekend.  My mother met Annie at a meditation center in New York. Together they traveled to India to study with a famous Jain Guru; it’s an extraordinary story involving elephants, a sacred mountain, temples, a broken ankle, lots of cilantro, and Kashmiri houseboats. During that trip, Annie became friends with Pramoda, the Guru’s wife. From her, Annie learned to perfect the art of Guajarati’s classic vegetarian cuisine. Annie has a natural gift in the kitchen and I’d like to think that she helped spark my love of cooking.

So with a happy heart, I called my Godmother once again for another kitchen adventure.

Vangi Batata Bhaji is a classic Gujarati dish made with eggplants and potatoes. It’s a little spicy, a little smoky, and like almost everything, tastes so much better the next day! A few pointers: make sure that your spices are fresh. Indian food relies heavily on them and if they are old, dishes can turn bland or worst, bitter. Also, don’t skimp on the fresh lemon juice, it’s a lovely dish that really sings once you add that splash of brightness.

Vangi Batata Bhaji
3 eggplants (the long thin kind, like Chinese or Japanese eggplants)
3-4 potatoes (We used three large Yukon Gold. If the potatoes are on the smaller size use four. You want a nice balance of potato and eggplant)
4 tomatoes

1/2 onion
Salt to taste 
2 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp garam masala (a sweet spice mixture. It’s fairly easy to find but here is a recipe)
1 tsp turmeric powder
4 tbs oil (not olive oil. Sunflower, canola, something that won’t alter the taste of the dish)
2 cups water
1 1/2 tsp sugar
3 tbs fresh lemon or lime juice
Fresh cilantro (coriander) leaves for garnish

-Dice the tomatoes and onion finely. Peel the potatoes. Cut potatoes and eggplants roughly the same size, large cubes.
-Heat oil in pan, add the tomatoes, onion, salt, and turmeric powder. Cook for 4-5 minutes until aromatic and soft.
-Add the potatoes, eggplant, the rest of the spices, sugar and mix well. Add water, mix again.
-Bring to boil then let simmer uncovered until the potatoes are tender, the eggplant is soft, liquid has absorbed into the dish, about 15-20 minutes.
-Before serving, mix in the lemon juice and adjust salt. Serve with fresh cilantro leaves over rice.

Indian rice pudding, or Kheer, is a favorite desert of mine. I’ve never made it and surprisingly, neither had Annie. We decided to figure it out together - it came out perfectly. Be sure that you rinse the rice three times (or until the water runs clearly). I know it’s a drag, but it really makes a better dish. Kheer is much thinner than European/American style rice puddings; it’s closer to a sweet rice soup or porridge. The added delight of rosewater and the surprise crunch of slivered almonds makes this even more special.

You could easily replace the rose water with orange blossom water and instead of almonds try raisins or pistachios. Be careful with either the rosewater or the orange blossom water, a little bit goes a very long way. Also, whichever nuts you use, just don’t toast them; you want them there for crunch more than anything and toasted nuts have an intense flavor which would overtake the lovely subtleness of Kheer.

1/2 cup long grain rice (washed and drained, we used Basmati)
2 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 whole cardamom seeds, smashed (if you can't find whole seeds, use 1 tsp ground)
1/3 cup blanched, sliced or slivered almonds
4 tbsp sugar or more to your liking
2 tbs rosewater

-Bring rice, milk, cream, and cardamom seeds to a boil then simmer gently until the rice is soft and the milk has thickened, about 20-30 minutes.
-Fish out the cardamom pods with a fork, discard. Add the almonds and stir in the sugar gently with a fork until dissolved. Let simmer for about five minutes, adjust sugar to your liking.
-Before serving, gently mix in the rosewater with fork. This can be served warm or cold - personally I like it kind of room temperature. We garnished it with some candied ginger, but thats not necessarily traditional.

September 16, 2010

On Blogging

I believe that given the chance, everyone would press pause. We live in a too-fast world; we interface, we tweet, we text. We walk down the street and close ourselves off with iPods. Instead of taking a breather, we grab what’s fastest and easiest for lunch.  At night we anesthetize ourselves by watching people on TV with awful fake tans yell and hit each other. We forget that rosemary and thyme make everything smell terrific, sugar and spice makes everything nice, and nothing is as pleasurable as the company of those we love.

If I can remind people of the pleasure of herbs and spices, I’d be pleased. If I can convince people that food and cooking are manifestations of love, I’d be thrilled. And when I write something that touches a reader enough to stop, breathe, and boil water even just once a week … I’m fulfilled.

I can’t help but wonder if Pauline and Olga felt the same way. After I started blogging, I discovered that two of my great, great grandmothers wrote about food:  Olga wrote about entertaining and Pauline, a journal of her struggles keeping kosher in South Africa during the turn of the last century. I’d always heard that Olga was an endlessly elegant woman and Pauline was an amazing cook and that’s all I knew. But my new found link to these women in my own history makes my journey through blogging that much more important: no longer an indulgence, I’m now continuing a tradition. I’m writing my book on entertaining and recording my food journal one blog entry at a time.

As a child, I traveled around the world with my parents. No matter where we were, whether it was a beach shack in Guadeloupe or a three star restaurant in Spain, my father would say: “You don’t have to like it …” and my mother would finish with “ … but you have to try it.” And almost everywhere we went people would say, “That young child is eating that?” Yes, that young child ate squid ink pasta at five, calamari a la plancha at six, raw fish at about seven, and sweetbreads at eight. The best, however, was when a four-year-old me declared that the only egg I ever intended to eat again, was caviar.
My 3rd Birthday

But after a long day at work, followed by a long commute on the subway, am I really going to make cayenne-spiced, bacon-wrapped bonbons, or suggest that my readers do? No, probably not. I share recipes with my readers that I hope they will actually be inspired to make. (Hmm, cayenne-spiced, bacon-wrapped bonbons…)

I see my blog as a love letter:  to my parents for encouraging me to become who I am; to my friends for laughing with me and asking for seconds; to my readers, all of whom I would invite over to dinner in a heartbeat; and finally, to my husband, without whom this blog would be a boring, unattractive, anemic thing. 

I cook, I write, I live, and love in Brooklyn. And that’s not just some well-alliterated sentence; it’s a truth that I hold onto dearly. With this blog, I invite people into my kitchen to share my life. I hope my readers find that moment to pause and delight in the people and foods around them.

Somewhere, Olga and Pauline are setting a table and kneading dough. They’re with me, nodding in approval, as I record my own culinary history and share it with the world.

  Great Grandmother Olga
Great Grandmother Pauline




September 9, 2010

The Strawberries Were Calling Me!

After getting off the train and starting to walk home, I passed by the same little grocer I do almost everyday. An array of fruits and veggies were outside as they are every day, but yesterday the strawberries were calling my name. They were past their prime - a little bruised, a little sorry looking. That last pint of strawberries of the season were begging to be be taken home. Of course, a bruised slightly wrinkly strawberry is hardly appetizing. It was almost seven and I didn't feel like a whole production, so I ran into the store, bought the strawberries, some heavy cream, and crescent roll dough. It was a success I'm happy to say, as was the rest of our very simple end of summer meal.

Polenta with Mushrooms
1 cup fine yellow corn meal
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
2 1/2 cups broth & 1/4 cup broth
2 pints mushrooms (I used baby bella/crimini)
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tbs butter (or the fake stuff like Smart Balance)
1 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
Olive oil
Salt & pepper
Juice of half a lemon

-Wet a pyrex dish or other large flat dish, with water, do not dry. This will prevent the Polenta from sticking to the dish. Boil 2 1/2 cups of broth. Slowly add the corn meal and Parmesan and mix/whisk until well combined. Transfer Polenta to watered dish and spread evenly. Let cool on a cooling rack until room temperature, then stick in the fridge or freezer until chilled.
-Meanwhile, saute garlic in butter for a few minutes on high. Add 1/4 cup broth, lemon juice, then mushrooms. Coat the mushrooms well in the butter and broth then let cook away until the mushrooms release their liquid. Keep sauteing until mixture is completely dry and the mushroom are golden. If you want the mushrooms more golden and seared, add a little more broth and cook until dry again. Add salt & pepper to taste, then turn off heat, mix in the chopped parsley, set aside.
-When Polenta is chilled, cut into strips. Heat olive oil in pan, and sear the polenta on two sides until crispy. Serve with mushrooms.


Salad was simple, but the ingredients were so pretty I had to share. Chicken with celery salt, dry dill, pepper, and lemon juice, sauteed in some olive oil. Roma tomatoes and really perfectly ripe avocado. I tossed it with some olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper.

Strawberry Poofs
1 pound strawberries, past their prime preferably, diced
2 heaping tbs sugar (superfine if you have it)
2 tbs brandy
1 tsp vanilla
1 package of crescent roll dough (you could also use croissant dough or even puff pastry if you have it)

-Preheat oven to package temperature (my package said 375).
-Combine strawberries with sugar, brandy, and vanilla - set aside. The longer this sits, the yummier it gets!
-Spoon a single lager of strawberries into a mini-muffin tin.
-Separate crescent rolls, roll them up, and cut them in half. Flatten the dough until you get a round coin that fits perfectly in the mini muffin tray (if you're using a regular sized muffin tin, I would say use the whole crescent roll).
-Cook for 10-15 minutes until the crescent rolls have puffed up and browned. Serve with fresh whipped cream flavored with a little vanilla and cardamom or cinnamon.

(Just to give you an idea of scale, this is all sitting in a 3" round creme brulee dish)

September 2, 2010

Project Food Blog

You may have noticed a nifty widget directly to the right of this entry. I have joined over one thousand others in Foodbuzz's search for the next great food blogger. I'm excited, I'm nervous, and I'm dying to know how far I can get. With your help, maybe to the top. There's public voting allowed, in fact the person with the most public votes, automatically gets pushed forward to the next challenge.

So I hope I can count on your vote for Governor of - I mean food blogger extraordinaire. If nothing else its a wonderful challenge and opportunity to reach more people. I'll let everyone know when the voting opens, but here is a link. Also, follow on me twitter (@duchessinbk) for updates as well. So there it is, short and sweet, vote for me - lets see where this little blog can go!