Living the Good Life…

My food blog & cookbook in progress

Good food…good company

An introduction to this blog:

My mother claims that once, when I was very young (still in the single digits), I very earnestly explained to her that the major difference between us was that whereas she ate to live, I lived to eat. Not a very meaningful aim in life, perhaps, but the statement still exemplifies one of our differences, double-digits of years later. Except that today I might rephrase my original statement to more broadly include “food” rather than just “eat,” for it’s not just eating food that I’m obsessed with but all its glorious aspects – cooking it, shopping for it, socializing around it etc. etc. etc. A cook-book was inevitable I suppose. For now it’s on this blog, maybe someday it will become a “real” book? We’ll see…

Meanwhile Cheers, Prosit, Sante etc

😉

Neeraja

Eight ways

Thanks to Manasi Khanna, a former student and now an entrepreneur in food world (check out her website at Tasty Talks) , I’ve just participated in my first formal food event as curator and head-cook of an event where people have actually paid to attend and eat food that I’ve cooked! The Oct 9, 2021 meal was a tribute to those purple princes of the vegetable kingdom, although their green-and-white Thai cousins made a guest appearance, albeit disguised beyond recognition. Here with photos are descriptions that we provided at the event. No recipes yet, I’m sorry. They may appear in due course under the appropriate pages

First course: A duo of dips

1.1 Litti Choka

A rustic, street food speciality from the regions of Bihar, Jharkand and eastern Uttar Pradesh in India, Litti Choka is a unique, delicious and pungent treat that is sure to fire up your taste buds and clear out your sinuses. The pungency comes from multiple sources, both the way of cooking (traditionally smoked over a fire fueled by gobar, dried cow dung) as well as special ingredients. Litti is a roll made of a wheat-based shell and a nutty stuffing of sattu–a blend of lentils and pickling spices, and Choka is best described as a smoked mash of vegetables–eggplant of course, is the hero but there are others–flavored generously with a sinus-clearing wasabi-like-kick-giving mustard oil. 

1.2 Baba Ganoush

Who doesn’t know (and love) Baba-Ghanouj, that signature eggplant dish from the Middle East? Usually paired with other famous regional dips such hummus, this creamy concoction from Nahed’s kitchen can easily stand on its own, especially when served as it is here, studded with jewel-like pops of tangy pomegranate. In this tasting menu, it also offers the perfect complement to our other smoked offering, the Choka, creamy and soothing where the latter was spicy and punchy.

2. Eggplant stack

This riff on the famed Melanzana Parmigiana, aka Eggplant Parmersan, of Italian fame, is actually a representation of how foods from different parts of the globe come together deliciously, a true meeting of East and West somewhere in the middle (the word Mediterranean literally means Middle-Earth). Eggplants are said to have originated in the Indian subcontinent while everyone knows that tomatoes were a New World discovery. Yet it was in the kitchens of Italian mammas where, melded with local flavors of oregano, dried hot Sicilian peppers, and wonderful cheeses–fresh Mozzarella di buffala, and of course, Parmigiana Reggiano–that a magical alchemy took place to produce this toothsome bite.

3. Makdous

Here’s a bit of trivia for you: Makdous is the name both for our next dish but also for the little egg-shaped variety of the aubergine with which these tasty tangy pickles are made. There are likely as many recipes for makdous as there are homes in the Middle-East. Today we are enjoying a Syrian version from Nahed. She recommends trying it with a dollop of labneh and so that’s how we’re serving it, individually in little boats for you to pick off the tray. Wrap it up in some pita from the baskets at your table and enjoy.

4. Bom Chount Wangan

Kashmir boasts a unique cuisine that uses combinations of spices in ways unknown elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent, and indeed the world. It is also one of the cuisines you are unlikely to experience in Indian restaurants (even when they are named Kashmir!). In addition to that unique mix of spices–we challenge you to identify some of them–it also combines eggplants with the tangy crunch of green apples.

Bom Chount Wangan is a rare and seasonal–before the apples on the trees begin to ripen–treat, so rare that even the Kashmiris reserve it for special occasions and festivals, especially those to honor their ancestors.

5. Eggplant Mapo Tofu

Chinese food aficionados and connoisseurs may claim this version is not the genuine article but then again, mapo tofu is the sort of dish that has many incarnations. While we cannot claim any authenticity, our version is inspired by the flavors from the Eastern reaches of the Silk road, with classic ingredients of those cuisines including soy, fermented blackbeans, shitake mushrooms, rice vinegar, and even, unexpectedly, mulberries, which was indirectly the basis of the silk trade. Served with noodles instead of rice for a change, we hope “my-po” tofu will please. 

6. Vangi Bhaath

Although bhaath is a term used for either rice or rice-based dishes in many parts of India, it is in the bottom half of the Deccan Plateau, where rice is the staple grain, that you will find the preparation of bhaaths raised to a fine art. There is a near infinite variety of them–each one a magical mixture of rice tempered with a blend of toasted spices and some other surprise ingredients. Popular types are tamarind and lemon, but of course, our hero for this meal being the eggplant–Vangi as it’s called in the South–we give you Vangi Bhaath together with a cooling cucumber pachadi (raita) to help it go down easy. 

7. Murabba Batindshan

How many people expected to find a dessert featuring aubergine? To be honest, even some of us who put this menu together had not expected to feature it in this way. But in the Levant and in Morocco, they actually candy eggplants as they do other fruit (botanically eggplants are fruits) and result is a jammy melt-in-the-mouth sweet treat, that we are serving with a touch of eshta (creamed ricotta) and a biscotti for some textural contrast, to be washed down with a refreshing glass of mint tea.

P.S. The even was a lot of fun if exhausting–the company was great and they seemed to love the food. One would think I’m eggplanted out and I am somewhat to be sure but even so, I am going to eat some tonight. I need to use up some of the uncooked vege still in in my fridge before it rots. So am trying whole new recipe hailing from Orissa, another Eastern state in India. Recipe courtesy my dear friend-almost-sister Charu, whose Mom hailed from those parts.

Around the World…

When I started this blog back in the day, it was meant to be a repository of recipes and anecdotes which would eventually become a cookbook. In fact more than one cookbook–one was going to have the same title as this blog, i.e. Living the Good Life, originally with the extension as a graduate student (as was the case with this blog actually), but those days being long gone and good food still being one of the things that makes life good, I think the truncation is better. But there was always a second idea, maybe not strictly a cookbook but a food tour with recipes where possible and mere descriptions of dishes and places to eat them, which I would title Around the World in Eighty Meals (my love for literary allusions lives on!). Fast forward to the present day and I have yet another idea–a food and culture book about the lesser or even unknown cuisines of India, but that I’ll save for later–though there may be come overlaps.

My rules for 80 Meals in order to make this a authentically personal book are simple.. I must have visited the country myself and be able to either cook or described a restaurant where I ate said meal. India, where I grew up will obviously be featured, although I’ll stick mainly to breakfasts and snacks/street food there because they are unusual, even unique, compared to the rest of world. For the rest I will make a list in roughly chronological order of my visits or residence. This will be “vanity project” for sure and something I’m going to use as my “productive procrastination” project (another of my favorite writerly tics–alliteration). In case it comes to fruition.. remember you saw it here first!

The Covid-19 recipe chain

I’ve tried to part of such an endeavor before and received precisely one (that’s right one) recipe and that too from one of my own links. That was Sara Cooper. This time around I’ve gotten one bonafide contribution from further down the chain. Lets see how many more I accumulate. It’s a nice heart-warming exercise during these trying times.

Sensory peeves

Being a regular watcher of food shows and a reader of the New York Times cooking pages among, I’ve found myself irritated on several occasions when I hear food and tastes described in ways that are, well, just plain WRONG! Tamarind for instance was described by one woman (who as a subcontinental should have known better) as sweet-bitter with nary a mention of its tang or sourness, which is after all it’s predominant taste–though I’ll admit to a certain fruity sweetness in most batches. Elsewhere, in a diametrically opposite note, someone kept describing a honey as imparting a tang, as though that rather than sweetness was the predominant taste.  Okay I get it.. you want to highlight something unusual about an ingredient. But when the ingredient itself is unusual, one should say something about its main properties.?

South meets south

So the other day I was watching an episode from the current season of Top Chef, which is based in Charleston this year. The challenge was to make a creative brunch to serve a large number of people, that both celebrated the local ingredients and traditions, but also brought in the chef’s personal touch and experience. Here’s what I thought would have made for a cool South Indian spin on ingredients from the American South, using grits, green tomatoes, buttermilk and okra:

Upma korykotai (grit dumplings), something that Amma has done for decades. Will provide link when I include the recipe.

Green tomato chutney, using the gingery pacchidi recipe I posted a long time ago.

South Indian styled kadi (buttermilk broth) using deep fried okra as garnish.

To give yet another dairy punch, small pots of either bhapa-dohi with peaches, or chilled masala chai flavored baked custard.

Would have worked really well given the over-night prep time they allowed for this challenge. Could make and shaped dumplings night before and steam them in morning, before which would get chutney going. Time permitting prep the okra by washin, drying thoroughly and slitting the night before. Originally I thought to even deep frying ahead of time but to add them only shortly before serving would offer a better texture I think. Finally make the dessert and put in fridge also night before.

Turkey 2016

Happy Thanksgiving all. Despite some bleak things in my life lately– joblessness for 17 months and counting…, Trump as president elect, other fascists ruling elsewhere–the food and togetherness of this festival in the US never fails to remind me how MUCH I have to be grateful for. And here I offer some nifty ways to adapt the classic TxG staples–turkey, stuffing, roasted roots etc–in the days that follow. Well here’s one recipe and others will follow as I make and post em:

Stuffing soup

Squashamole/Squashomous

Turkey biryani (no links for this one, but mentioning it because I remember cooking this atop Shomik & Renu’s stove top in 2004. Don’t think it ever made it to the table but was consumed directly from the pot by all those of us who passed it by).

Hot cranberry pickle (thokku)

Muddled in migration

Here are two words related to food that I  have used without thinking until I heard them used differently in a way that made me think…” wait a minute… that makes more sense than what I’ve been saying all along.” I’m not about to go to war over it, but I’m just saying, don’t be surprised if one day when you order a spaghetti marinara as an an entrée, you get an appetizer of a small (starter) plate of spaghetti studded with seafood in an olive-oil-and-lemon base and nary a tomato in sight.

The reason for the disconnect between what you think you ordered and what you got lies in the original meanings of the words. Entrée is the French word for starter, which is how it’s used in France (I think), and even some English-speaking countries. But in the Americas and in India too (especially in those pretentious restaurants where the waitstaff speak to you in phony accents with noses held high), it has come to mean the main course. Why, I simply can’t fathom. After all, the word even sounds like what it is, something with which one “enters” a meal.

The marinara muddle also makes sense if you think about it, for the word derived from a common root with marine or mariner, i.e. having to do with the sea. Wikipedia tells me that the dish spaghetti alla marinara means a pasta dish cooked in the style of the mariners or seamen. I suppose these medieval mariners might have preferred the fruits of their New World discoveries to those from the sea, but am willing to believe that someone Down Under got it right, and marinara sauce should contain ingredients from the sea. Anyone have any alternative evidence for which one might be more correct? Or should we just go the Winnie-the-Pooh route not make a choice. Hey! I’d not say no to an plate of pasta two ways, regardless of whether it’s served as the starter or the main.

Foodie update

No I haven’t (despite admitted appearances to the contrary) abandoned either this or my other site. It’s just life’s been such a mad frenzy for such a long time that blogging is backlogged till kingdom come. Although on this site I do sporadically add recipes if not food encounters and so they make their way to individual pages instead of posts. And I recently have added a section which ought to increase the pages since it’s a section for contributions… specifically at first recipes I may or may not receive because of a recipe network (or rather chain mail) that I just got roped into joining. So check out the pages that will show up in under the chapter marked “From fellow foodies.” My own contribution will appear in the butterfruit page in twisting themes section .. it uses avocados in what I (and those served) thought was a delicious alternative.

Long time…

since I’ve visited these pages. Seoul life is taking its toll on me in many ways and leaving no enthusiasm for blogging. But I have updated a few pages with additional recipes and thought I should make a note of it. Check out the ‘more daal’ page for an addition there… coming soon: something with tofu & oranges, and a Thai-inspired eggplant dish that tickles taste buds you didn’t realize you had!

Kim Chee chapters

They are about to begin. Foodwise Korea promises to be very, very interesting indeed. Restaurants are inexpensive and bountiful, and already I’ve had my first dinner invitation to a Korean home and been treated to the ultimate in comfort food, and sent home with a heavy bag full of food. Some of which is going to be turned into soup in short order…

Weeks later…

I suppose the honeymoon had to end sometime. i.e. Sooner or later I would get tired to Korean food and start craving Indian (read my own) cooking. But I still don’t like cooking for a just myself. Have become so unused to  it in fact, that when a pot of stew (imitating Moon yi) didn’t “get over” within the next couple of days, I simply lost track of time, and ate it 3 weeks later only to give myself my first awful bout of food poisoning! I won’t go into details but I blame the ingredients and my forgetfulness, not the recipe which was fantastic!

Meanwhile,  kimchee doesn’t go bad – ever – but does after a while start to taste a but much in its cold state and so can be converted to soups and stews (and even pancakes) the first which was highly recommended by Emily’s sister as a way to reduce my coughing. A nice twist on the theme was to stew it with using leftover gravy (I would call it broth but it get’s quite solid in once it cools down) from a curry whose main contents were all gone. Said gravy has also been used to make a dalia (wheat porridge, North Indian style) and a very quick egg curry.

Well, as you may guess I have started my kitchen running again. Not with the frequency or Cairo or B-22 but better than at the outset. The setup of the apartment with its open kitchen is nice and conducive for a few visitors at a time. Guests sit around the counter – the only dining table actually – on barstools (folks living in the same building, as many of the UIC-ites have a request to bring their own since the management provides only two per household) and we eat, drink and make merry. Or we sit around the low coffee table in the living room, but the kitchen area works better because of easier access to food. A mini ritual of gathering here after Western Civ lectures on Tuesdays has been tentatively started with speaker (Kelly last week, Michael last night…) organizer and 1-2 others chosen at whim. Would be nice, because I’m getting real tired real fast of my own company and even that of my precious Kindle at mealtimes.