Monday, December 27, 2010

Guest blogging at Fiction Groupies

Sorry, the holidays are playing mayhem with my schedule so this is probably my last post for 2010. However, I'm not leaving you high & dry. As a favor to my twitterpal, the wonderful Roni Loren, I'm guest blogging at her Fiction Groupie about How to Cook Up A Chacter. Go check it out.

Wishing you happy holidays and a wonderful 2011!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Comfort Foods From Different Corners of the World

Recently I was so stressed that I ended up cooking all kinds of comfort foods. Our favorite comfort foods are like warm hugs, they bring out all the contentment of childhood. One bite and you’re smiling from the inside out and all the chaos of the world subsides for a few moments.
Both kids and husband got sick. The littlest one had 102 degree fever. All three were off their food. Now I’ve been a mom long enough that I don’t panic easily, but my first-born was born at seven months and weighed one pound 11 ounces. Imagine a coke can with arms and legs. He fit in the palm of one my husband’s hands. It’s an image that will be with me forever.  Now my son is almost 9-years-old and he’s on the scrawny side but healthy. However, when he almost stops eating, yes I do panic.
So I called the pediatrician, only to be told the stuff was going around and to do the usual –plenty of fluids, rest and monitoring.  Watch and wait. Patience has never been one of my virtues, and add to that a feeling of helplessness...bad combination.  I did what I always do in such moments: went into the kitchen and cooked. 

 I chose to make a pot of soft khichuri, a comfort food from my childhood. It has all kinds of good stuff in it: chicken stock, rice, lentils, veggies, tummy-soothing spices like cumin and turmeric.

My mother always made this rice and lentil porridge when I was sick and whatever the ailment –a sniffly cold or a sensitive tummy – a bowl of this would make me feel a whole lot better. I served the khichuri with stories from my childhood and the kids almost cleaned their bowls.
Of course, like all good conversations, this one meandered over to include the other parent and we asked the Cowboy what his favorite childhood comfort food was. The answer: Gravy Meat.
I was confused. “You mean meat gravy?”
“No,” he was adamant. “Gravy meat.”
This isn’t an old German or Polish recipe, but an army one. “It’s a dad recipe,” the Cowboy said. My father-in-law served in the army during World War II and didn’t much like the food. The only exception was “Gravy Meat” or the less-polite "Shit-on-a-Shingle." Whatever the name, he liked the dish so much that when he returned home he had my mother-in-law recreate it. And so the Cowboy enjoyed it growing up.

It doesn’t matter where in the world you’re born or where you end up, every culture has its comfort foods to soothe a sick child and/or a worried parent. You grow up with this food and when things are not perfect in your world—you yearn for it.

Cooking all these wonderful foods definitely helped calm me down. The best part though was to curl up on the couch with a bowl of Khichuri and watch the twinkly splendor of my Christmas tree on Sunday night. I’m glad my children will have so many different kinds of comfort foods, and their associated stories, to help them through life.

 So what are some of your comfort foods?

Soft Khichuri – As far as comfort foods go, this one is actually on the healthy side.
½ cup white, short grain rice (or whatever rice you have)
¼ cup red mushur lentils
¼ cup pale yellow mung lentils (I’ve seen this in H-E-B, or if you want substitute both these lentil varities with ½ cup green or brown lentils)
2 tablespoons of canola oil
½ a medium onion, finely sliced
A thumb-length of fresh ginger, skin scraped-off and coined
1 bay leaf
6 to 8 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
¼ teaspoon of turmeric
¼ teaspoon of cumin
½ teaspoon of coriander powder
¾ teaspoon of salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne (optional)
1 cup of pumpkin puree (my mom used a traditional Bengali gourd called lao, but she suggested the more readily-available pumpkin would have a similar tummy cooling effect)
1 cup frozen mixed vegetable
5 to 7 cups of liquid (I use a mix of chicken broth and water)
  1. Mix the rice and lentils together, wash several times until the water runs clear. Drain and set aside.
  2. In a large heavy-bottomed pot, heat oil over medium high heat. Add onion, ginger and bay leaf and cook until onion has softened.
  3. Add the rice and lentil and fry for two minutes, then add the garlic and spices (turmeric to cayenne) and cook for 5 minutes.
  4. Add 5 cups of liquid and pumpkin puree, stir and bring to a boil.
  5. Cover and cook on low heat for about 25 minutes. Check on it. Most rice is cooked by now, but at this point you probably can see rice and lentils as separate ingredients. You want them to meld together and give you a creamy, porridge-like consistency. So cook for another couple of hours. If it thickens too much, add more liquid, stir. Keep an eye on it.
  6. When you think it’s coming together, add in the frozen vegetables and simmer for 15 minutes more.
  7. Serve with sliced lemons on the side. Remember to remove the ginger chunks if you don’t like to bite into their intense flavor.

Rashda’s version of Gravy Meat (Now that I think of it, this is similar to the Southern breakfast food sausage gravy and biscuits)
2 tablespoons oil
1 pound ground meat
1 teaspoon dried thyme or Italian spice blend
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
4 garlic cloves, minced
½ a medium onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more if you like heat)
½ cup white flour
4 cups of milk
1.       Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high heat, add meat and spices. Cook until meat is browned.
2.       Add garlic, onions, bell pepper and red pepper flakes and cook until the vegetables are soft.
3.       At this point you can either spoon out the meat mixture and set it aside, or leave it in the pan. Stir in the flour until dissolved. Gradually stir in the milk. Cook until the gravy is thick and bubbly. Taste test, and add more salt and pepper if needed.
4.       Serve with toast, biscuits or mashed potatoes.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Of Cowboys and Chocolates

Things really are bigger and better in Texas. Check out the Texas-sized marshmallows and compare with the puny looking average marshmallow in the picture. If you want these, or cattleprods (chocolate covered pretzel sticks) or tumbleweeds (truffles) and more chocolates made with Texas flair and cowboy humor, check out my article on San Angelo-based Sugar Daddy Desserts.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Holiday Side: Festive Green Beans with a taste of Bengal, a touch of curry

Panch Phoron, is a spice blend, close to my heart.

The sizzle and sputter of the spices in hot oil, the savory-sweet scent released into the air, transports me back to my childhood home in Bangladesh. The name translates to “five spices” in the Bengali language and consists of equal measures of fenugreek (methi), nigella seed (kalo jeera), cumin (jeera), black mustard (shorsha), and fennel (mouri). It is almost exclusively found in the kitchen of cooks with roots in the Bengali culture, usually from Bangladesh, Assam, West Bengal and Orissa. The seeds are left whole so the flavors change from bite to bite, yet all five work together like fingers on a hand.

So for my first Let’s Lunch post, I decided to reach for this old favorite and create a holiday side bursting with color and taste.
My mother uses panch phoron to transform simple dishes of vegetable, lentils or fish to swoon-worthy delicacies. Just a whiff of the earthy fragrance makes my mouth water. So I paired this with green beans, butternut squash and red bell peppers.

The first step is to cook the spice blend in hot oil for a minute or two. The heat should make the spices pop and liberate their essential oils and aroma. This is a process known as “phoron” or “baghar” in Bengali.
The first veggie added in the squash, because it would take the longest to cook. I also tossed in a bit of turmeric, cayenne, and ground cumin – ingredients traditionally found in curries of the Indian-subcontinent. My mother would shake her head here, but hey, I’m a girl who likes to add her own twist.

Part way through the cooking, I add the tomatoes.  I also keep some water at hand and add splashes here and there to prevent sticking.  All these kitchen tips and tricks were learned at my mom’s side. Thanks mom!

When the squash is half-cooked, add in green beans and garlic. Save the bell peppers for the last five minutes. The vegetables should be just done, still bright with color.
Not your traditional green bean casserole, but an exotic alternative. My DH, the Cowboy, has already declared it a winner and requested it for our Christmas Eve dinner.  Maybe it’ll become a new tradition, perfect for our East-West household.

This post has been brought to you thanks to the Lets Lunch bunch, a group of food enthusiasts from all over, who come together to share recipes, stories, friendship and virtual lunch in cyberspace. To give full credit, actually this entire blog came into existence because I wanted to join in the fun and this group was the kick-in-the-rear I needed (I know, waaay late to the party…but here). So thanks #Letslunch pals, this one’s for you.

Check out some of the other Lets Lunch holiday sides:

The Kitchen Trials' Parker House Rolls

Free Range Cookies' Green Bean Casserole 

Cooking in the Fruit Bowl's Kimchi Risotto Bake

The Cowgirl Chef's Mushroom-Leek Quinoa Salad

If you'd like to join Let's Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #Letslunch

Recipe: Festive Green Beans with a taste of Bengal, a touch of curry
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons panch phoron (you can buy the mix in Indian grocery stores, online, or make your own)
½ a medium onion, sliced lengthwise
1 teaspoon ginger, peeled and slivered
2 cups butternut squash, peeled and diced (I kept them on the small side to cook faster)
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon cayenne powder (or more if you like heat)
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
¾ teaspoon salt
2 to 3 Roma tomatoes, diced (juice and all)
12-ounces green beans, washed and trimmed
3 to 4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced (I actually pound mine into an almost-paste)
1 red bell pepper, cleaned and diced into 1-inch pieces
Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat
Add the panch phoron and cook for a minute or two. When it becomes fragrant, add in onion and ginger, cook until onion is soft and translucent.
Add in the butternut squash and the curry spices (turmeric to salt), stir and cook for about a minute or two (this cuts the raw flavor of the spices), add the tomatoes and cook some more. If your spices start sticking to the bottom of the pan, add splashes of water as needed (just enough to keep cooking and prevent burning).
When the butternut is half-done, add the green beans and garlic. Stir gently and cook for three minutes.
Add the bell pepper and cook another five minutes, or until the veggies are just done.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Cowboy presents me Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit

The Cowboy knows that I’m adventurous in the kitchen and I’ll cook just about anything. Fortunately for me, he’ll try almost anything once. If it’s on a plate (and sometimes even that’s not a necessity), he’ll eat it. From time to time, he likes to surprise me with an ingredient and watch to see if he’s finally stumped me.  One time he brought home some sheep balls. No, you didn’t misread. I applied some Texas wisdom: fry anything and it’ll taste good. Yup, I cleaned ‘em, sliced ‘em, and fried ‘em with plenty of garlic. They weren’t bad.
More recently, he brought home these:
Now, after having arrived in Texas, I’ve seen these blushing beauties crowning cacti patches, adding flavor and color to a hard, flat, mostly brown landscape. I’ve even enjoyed nopales (the flat green cactus pad) in eggs and other dishes…that someone else cooked. But, somehow, I hadn’t ever attempted to cook any cacti myself.
I’m sure the thorns were part of the problem, then there was the name. A lot of people refer to the Prickly Pear fruit as a tuna. Even though it is the Spanish word for the fruit, with a separate word “atun” referring to the fish, the fish is what comes to mind. And that just calls up all sorts of negative images, flavor associations, smells to go with the most common recipes available – jellies and syrups. But now I had a whole bowlful on my kitchen counter, just waiting for me to do something with them. Worse, the Cowboy was smirking.
Life could have been worse. He could have brought them fresh from the pasture, thorns and all. Instead, he brought them already plucked from the grocery store (thoughtfulness or foresight about how far he could push me?) Whatever the reason, I guess I should be grateful.
The first order of business was a taste-test so I knew what flavor I had to work with. So I washed and peeled them, chopped them into bite size pieces. Took a bite, then another. Yummy! Sweet and refreshing, the fruit tasted like a cross between strawberries and pomegranate. Unfortunately, the fruit is full of tiny seeds. These are supposed to be edible, but I found them plain annoying. Conclusion: the seeds were going to be strained out.
The prickly pear fruit can come in many colors: whitish green, yellow, orange, magenta, purple. Mine happened to be a beautiful ruby. Loved the color! So I paired it with old favorites:
For the first attempt, I cooked both the cranberries and tunas together, then strained the cooled concoction. To end up with a jewel-toned syrup that adds awesomeness to vanilla ice cream, pancakes and such.
For the second attempt, I peeled and chopped the fruit, then strained it through a wire-mesh strainer. Next I cooked the pulp and cranberries to get a nice Prickly Pear-Cranberry sauce, which I presented to my mom-in-law for Thanksgiving. You can find the recipe and this week’s The Family Table here.
And yes, victory does taste sweet. Prickly Pear sweet. Bonus, I found some great online tuna resources.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Recipes for Curried Chickpea & Vegetable Pulao from India Day

Once you leave a continent, the political borders of individual countries often cease to matter as much, become less of a divisive wall. If I ran into another American in France, for a moment at least, I wouldn’t be from Texas and he wouldn’t be from New York. We'd both be Americans. If we were trying to settle in a new country, most likely we’d share Thanksgiving and July 4th and other holidays. Because at that point what matters most is that common bond – America.

Similarly, people who come from different parts of the Indian-subcontinent, whether from Bangladesh or Sri Lanka tend to hang out together and identify themselves as desi or deshi. Desh means land. We are ultimately from the same land.

So when the local museum wanted to celebrate India and our small Indian-American community  asked me to help...I made my curried chickpeas and joined the party.

Preeti creates Henna Designs.

Usha paints a rangoli

To read my article on the event or to check out the recipes, click here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

My Thanks: winner announcement, agent interview

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving break. Mine was absolutely great. We traveled to Houston to be with my side of the family, so instead of turkey and dressing we had chicken biryani (a rice and chicken dish flavored with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, mace). Hey, we kept to the fowl-theme and the food was delish and the blessings were many.

Some of the highlights of my 2010 Thanksgiving weekend:

1. Waking up early and sneaking off to a neighborhood playground early Thanksgiving morning with the cowboy and the kids. We collected leaves along the way and talked about what we were thankful for. We swung on swings, slid down the slides and listened to happy giggles.

2. Spending time in the kitchen with my mother and sister, learning family recipes and stories. Watching the family try the end results. The verdict was uber kind: "It's even better because your hands touched it."

3. Finally telling people that I signed with an agent. For some strange reason, I needed to relish the news privately and accept it was real before I could share it. Here's an interview with my agent Nalini Akolekar.

4. Launching the blog and then checking back at every opportunity on the comments section. Unfortunately, my internet connection was spotty and that limited my visits. However, I'm absolutely amazed by the response. Thank you all so much for your kind words, great suggestions and follows. I will be adding a few more things to the blog: recipes, blog schedule etc.

5. Meeting up with a writing buddy I hadn't seen in ages, catching up face-to-face, talking writing. Visits with writer pals always refresh and inspire me.

6. Realizing what a great support system I have, made up of family, friends, and writing groups. I love you all!

Okay, enough of the sentimental stuff. Are you ready for the book giveaway winner? Drumroll please. The lucky person who won a copy of Monica Bhide's Modern Spice is...Deborah Blake. Congratulations! I'll be e-mailing you for details.

Thanks for reading y'all!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Princess and the Cowboy: How it all began.

OK, so I'm not a real princess, but my cowboy farmer makes me feel like one. Many people are surprised that an adventurous woman from Bangladesh and a quiet man-of-the-earth from West Texas can meet, fall in love and make a life together. Hey, love happens.

Welcome to Hot Curries & Cold Beer, where I share my kitchen experiments and life adventures, where I bring my two worlds together to create a whole new world full of color and sizzle, scents and flavors.

My West Texas adventure began with college graduation. I thought I was on my way to NYC, but then I started adding up the costs. Reality check. So instead, I decided to adventure in cheaper, but still exciting places. I sent resumes all over, from Alaska to West Texas. The latter won my heart (to be honest I'm a cold wimp) and I came to the land of the cowboys. The plan: work and save for two years, have fun, then head to New York.

Somehow two years turned into four. While I was enjoying my newspaper job, my feet were kicking up dust, ready to travel. Greece was calling my name (Greek food + Greek Men = one helluva siren call). My one regret: I hadn't learned how to two-step before I left Texas. I might have lamented about this over beers, because a friend from the paper soon invited me to hang out with her that weekend. She'd find someone to teach me how to two-step.

I walked into the bar and there he was: tall, blond and blue-eyed. There were others too, but somehow we kept finding each other. And we talked about food, and we talked about books (that's one of my other weaknesses/passions/obsession). He held me close and taught me the Texas Two-Step. After several dance classes -- dates -- he finally said, "You know, if I wasn't holding you so close, you'd probably learn easier." Well, he waltzed all thoughts of Greece out of my head.

That happened in 2000. We have had much fun introducing each other to our very different lives, experiences and worlds. I took him to Bangladesh (and for once my family found me instantly in the airport crowds. I was next to the towering white guy in the cowboy hat), he took me to his family's sausage-making. My mother cooked him up a bunch of greens, which he referred to as weeds,but ate and managed to compliment her. His mother fed me saurkraut and I actually smiled.

For the wedding, he wore a Western Tux and I wore a traditional red and gold Lehenga. After the first dance, he changed into a silk kurta set, and I wore jeans, boots and a cowboy hat. We exchanged garlands, followed by a traditional kiss. So our life has been a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a fusion.

No where is this fusion better expressed than in the kitchen. We both love cooking together and coming up with new recipes. I'm the experimental, go-with-my-gut kind of cook. He's the meticulous type, measuring and taking notes, just in case he likes it enough and wants it again.

Now that you know who we are and sort of what to expect, I hope you'll be joining us again to see what the cowboy and I are cooking up next.