Sunday, January 4, 2015

Do you know from Jewish Food? Knishes and Rugelach

"To know from" is Yiddish-inflected New Yorkese that means to have a firsthand grasp on something that not everyone can know, because, simply stated, they weren't there.  The term connotes a familiarity in the bones and of the soil, even if one is surrounded only by pavement.  It means to be steeped in, but not on purpose and not through study.  It refers to experience acquired by osmosis, default, or both.  It's not something that can be measured on a test; the wisdom, like the phrase itself, is tethered to time and place.

from Knish:  In Search of the Jewish Soul Food, by Laura Silver

I was wandering around a local book fair when I came across this book. The front cover instantly grabbed my attention:  On it sits a photo of a single knish, baked light golden, and perfectly round.  A knish is a small bread ball, baked with some variation of filling, but most often, potato and onion. This image transported me back to the summer of 1994, the last time my grandmother made them for our family. The Knish is my main connection to traditional "Jewish" food. 

I admit, I do not "know from" most Jewish food.  I did not grow up in an area like Brooklyn, NY, with any Jewish population of which to speak. Nor did I have a large extended family, Jewish or otherwise, or go to synagogue or have relatives over for Passover.   Even many of the secular Jewish people I met in college and beyond who were unexposed to religious rituals often still grew up knowing from Jewish culture, especially food.  What I do know comes largely from memories of my Grandma Fanny's cooking.   Because Grandma Fanny lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which was a 12-hour plane ride away, I would get a taste of her cooking during her once-every-few-years visits to us, or us to her.  Often during these visits, she made knishes.  I realize that, like many children of traditional cultures who are mainstreamed into the United States,  I do not know from many things that my grandparents did.  Sometimes I envy those who feel their connections to Judaism as something there but unacknowledged on a conscious level, like their own teeth or hair.  I sense there is much I am missing. My friends might roll their eyes at this statement. They have heard it from me too many times.  I suspect it reflects a Romanticized view of ethnic or religious identity, to think, "this is what it is to be [Jewish/Argentine/whatever-identity-you-wish-to-insert]."

As I get older, I find myself yearning for these connections to tradition, but with the cautious involvement of an outsider. I am from Jewish, but also from Galician* Catholic. I am from Argentine background, but born in the USA.   So regarding ethnic-religious identity, I know from the state of "being both, and".  Often, I observe or consciously have to learn traditions, cuisines, or rituals.  Though occasionally, something in the landscape of life -- be it a smell, a sound, or in the case of the knish, a photo -- triggers a memory that makes me exclaim, "Aha!! Omigod, yes I KNOW that!"  Such it was with the knish.

During this past month's Hanukkah celebrations, I decided to look to my Jewish roots and try my hand at baking Knishes. So I followed the recipe from Knish:  In search of the Jewish Soul Food.  The only modification is that I sautéd the onions. Everyone I asked agreed that this needed to be done.  Verdict?

"Superb", said my husband. His background is Russian Orthodox (Christian), so he knows from bread and potatoes, if not knishes.  And he has never known a bread or potato that he didn't like.

"Very good", said my mother, "but they are a bit too salty. Cook them for longer on a lower oven setting, and don't use so much salt or oil in the filling.  That is how my mother used to make them."

So here is my modified recipe. (For the original, see Knish, p. 223)

Grandma Fanny's Knishes

Kitchen Tools:  

2 large mixing bowls
2 baking sheets 
parchment paper
1 pizza cutter (silicone preferred); or sharp knife
1 potato masher
counter space (for rolling out dough)
1 rolling pin

For the filling:

6 pounds russet potatoes, scrubbed and peeled, then boiled and mashed.

1/4 cup of oil
1/8 cup of salt
8 cups yellow onions, chopped thin and sautéed in vegetable oil

For the dough:
3 1/4 cups Flour
1 tbs sugar
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup lukewarm water

Heat oven to 375 degrees.
Make the filling:  Peel the potatoes, then boil until fork-tender. Drain.
Sauté the onions in vegetable oil until translucent. Set aside.
Place potatoes in a mixing bowl. Mash them with the salt and oil, and then add the sautéed, chopped onion.  Set aside until cool enough to handle.

In the meantime, make dough.  When done, shape into a ball, cover generously with vegetable oil, and place in a bowl covered with cloth. Let it rest for 2 hours or up to overnite in the refrigerator.

Take dough out; divide into 3 equal pieces.  Keep 2 pieces in the fridge until you are ready to roll them.

With a rolling pin on a lightly floured surface, roll the first piece into a rectangle. Fill one side with  the filling all the way down the side, about 2" in from the edge, in about a 1 1/2" width line. Fill down till about 2" from the bottom edge.
Drape the side of the dough over the filling, lightly compressing the filled dough as you cover it. Roll it over 2 or 3 more times. Using a cutting tool (I prefer a silicone pizza wheel), cut the filled tube from the remaining dough. 
Take the filled tube and cut crosswise every 3-4 inches or so. (The longer the slices, the bigger each knish will be.) Pinch off the ends, coil the small tube like a snail, and pinch-press the ends together.

You will have a small "purse", which you can guide into a circular shape.  Repeat this process until you have used all of the dough and filling. Then do it again with the next 2 balls of dough.
Placed each knish on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, about 2 inches apart.  Brush with egg white, (or with the entire beaten egg if you prefer).

  Place in oven and bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until the knishes are light-golden in color.


Confession:  I do not know from Rugelach at all. Nobody I knew in my family ever made it. I first saw it at Whole Foods from a company named "Irene's", no less, and I decided to make it out of a craving for something yummy and sweet.  Plus I was on a roll for Jewish baking.

I used this recipe from Epicurious.  I figure that if it belonged to someone's Jewish Grandmother, it must be good.

Verdict: With my sweet tooth, I loved the Rugelach.  Hubby did too, though he favors the knishes.

My mother:  "I only eat sweets when I am drunk." (She ate one tipsily, and seemed to enjoy it at the time.  She now denies having done so.)

Store knishes in air-tight containers in the fridge for up to 1 week, or in the freezer for up to 6 months, if you do not serve immediately.  Then when you want to eat them, heat them up in an oven or toaster oven (NOT a microwave! This will render them limp and soggy) for 8-10 minutes at 350 degrees just before serving.

Store the Rugelach in tins in cool, dry place, or freeze. Rugelach freezes well, so freeze any that are uneaten after 1 week, and thaw before eating.  You can reheat them in a regular or toaster oven at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes.

So...What food do you know from?

*this refers to the Celtic region of Galicia, in Northern Spain, not the region between Austria-Russia which was home to many Jews in Europe for centuries.  

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Keeping Me in Stitches; Cream Scones with Currants

Sometimes it's easy to feel demoralized. Especially when coping with the afflictions of the body.

Like when we learned 2 months ago that the reason our 12-year-old son had lost so much weight these past few months and was plagued with digestive issues and weird skin and scalp rashes, was that he has Crohn’s Disease. It is not fatal but it is chronic, with intermittent flare-ups and periods of remission, manageable with diet, medication, and lifestyle adjustments. Diagnosis and treatment monitoring involved an extensive series of tests involving imaging, colonoscopy/endoscopy, and blood draws. The first blood draw had been sheer hell. Two of us, a lab tech and I, had to help hold him and his arm steady while he screamed in pain and, mostly, terror. If there is one thing that rips a Mom apart, it is seeing her child suffer. The 1-minute draw felt like an hour, it was so grueling.

Oh, and my Mom had a recurrence of her non-Hodgkin Lymphoma this year, so she just finished chemotherapy. Did I mention that my Dad still has Alzheimer’s Disease? The main change with him is that he no longer speaks at all and is shakier getting up and sitting down.

To top this off, two weeks ago when I went back to the doctor to find out my lipid panel results, he told me that, despite my having lost 60 pounds and keeping it off for the past 10 months, my numbers suck again. "It's just genetic", he said. "We'll put you back on Zetia.” (He wanted to do Statins, but they gave me such bad side effects that I think of them as an evil to avoid at all cost.)

“Oh, well, it was a good experiment”, he said.

"Experiment?!?" I wanted to exclaim. “My losing 1/3 of my physical self and changing my eating habits was an experiment?!?”

Yes, I know he meant that we needed to see what my lipid levels are at a healthy body weight, without medication intervention. But part of me wants to just scream. Throwing something might not be bad, either.

My LDL – the “bad” cholesterol – is up again. Admittedly I indulge my love my milk fats and carbs on Fun Day. But it is hard to accept that my genetic makeup is such that that one weekly day of indulgence can kick my numbers right back into the hot zone.

In a weird way, though, I feel redeemed that it is genetic and not my fault. I want to shake my Dad out of his senile stupor, summoning forth the doctor in him, shaking my lab report at him and saying, "See? I am doing what you always told me to do, and still! It is not because I was heavy!" Part of me is scared that he will temporarily wake up and say, "Fine, Mrs. Know-it-All, but either way, you better watch those lousy lipids of yours. Genetics! Remember, every cell in your body is half from me!" And then he'd smirk in triumph that somehow, I’d always be a part of him. Just like the old days when he'd drive me insane.  And part of me longs for this, too.  I really miss him, except when I don’t.

Ultimately, it is too overwhelming to stare all of these issues in the face at once. Like standing at the edge of a tall mountain and thinking, "How the hell do I get to the top?" Nope. We'd never do it if we thought about the whole mountain. We have to take things step by step, setting small objectives. And most of all, appreciating the steps along the way. I can’t wait for all of this to go away so I can live life. This is life. As Erica Brown pointed out,

Anne Lamott in her latest book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair …Creates a metaphor for responding to pain: "We live stitch by stitch, when we're lucky." We live in the moments between, focusing on the way that we stitch, the way we put together into a pattern of meaning that which seems puzzling and vexing. "You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next... Without stitches, you just have rags. And we are not rags."

-- Dr. Erica Brown, Weekly Jewish Wisdom, (24 Heshvan 5775)

So life is keeping me in stitches.

I wouldn’t be so affected by family illness if these people didn’t mean so much to me. There’s the rub: All this stitching can feel constraining, like a corset, so at times I long to break free and say, “I don’t want to have to think about all this!” But other times, the garment that results keeps me warm, loved, protected. I worry because I love these people so damn much.

And then sometimes while I am stitching, seemingly ordinary moments become awesome. Like today, when I took our son to do yet another blood draw/needle procedure. He plopped down on the examining table, held out his arm, and matter-of-factly chatted with the tech, eyes averted but steady as she inserted the needle into his arm and did what was needed. What was once so scary to him is now ordinary. That, to me, is extraordinary. Then we bonded over lunch: Burgers for him, chicken salad for me. And it was good.

Regarding my health, I haven't fallen off the whole mountain, just hit a plateau. My triglycerides are better. My “good” cholesterol is better, almost doubled, from 29 to 53. I feel far fewer aches and pains than I did 18 months ago, so daily living is far easier than it was then. I have better energy and health to handle the nuttiness of life. Not to mention, I have built up an awesome wardrobe. Next step: Add meds and egg substitute. Stitch it up into the next set of patterns.

Most rewarding is that our son is doing much better since starting treatment. His energy, weight and appetite are up. We enjoy fun times with my Mom when we see her. Hubby is well, and older son turns 16 on Monday. And my Dad lets me feed him without fussing.

And now that cold weather is upon us, for my Fun Day, I felt like baking, so I made Martha Stewart'scream scones with currants.

(If you have slogged through this whole post, I thank you. You really sang for your supper this time.)

My modification: I had no whiskey so I soaked the currants overnight in triple sec and cognac! also I shortened the baking time to 12 minutes. True English scones are not browned, just ever so slightly baked. Hubby said they were superb, like the ones we'd eaten in Scotland years ago.

Eat healthy, indulge on occasion, get labs, scream, love your family, laugh. Stitch. Repeat.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Blogger since 2008
Blog:  The Wandering Taster

One of my friends, Edith-Ingrid, kindly nominated me to write about my blog, so I am stepping up to the challenge here.  Here are the basics of who I am and why I blog.

I was born in Chicago, Illinois, USA, but moved to the East Coast of the United States when I was 18, and basically stayed here since then.  I have lived in Northern Virginia for 20 years. 
Why did I start blogging?  I have always written down my observations, thoughts, feelings.  I started The Wandering Taster because like many people, I love food.  To me it is more than a basic need that keeps us alive. It is an expression of my personal memories, my associations with my family, and my links to the larger cultures around me. 

Food can be a force that unites people.  Latin Americans light up when I mention dulce de leche or flan.  Argentines get very happy if I suggest a beef cookout.  These are foods that were a regular part of my childhood trips to Buenos Aires, Argentina, my parents’ home country.  So for me this food symbolizes a sort of homecoming.   

It can also be a force that divides.  We have all been to that restaurant in a particular part of the country or world that makes things differently, in a way that we did not expect or like.  I think of my first experience with New-York style pizza.  As a native Chicagoan, I could not believe that what I was eating passed for “pizza”.  To me, it is deep-dish or I am done!  And it should be cheese and sausage, not cheese and pepperoni.   I have argued endlessly with my husband, a native New Yorker, about this.  It is an area where we have agreed to disagree.

Why my blog is different:  Most people agree that cooking and eating are meditative and pleasurable.  When I make a new dish, why did I choose it, and what does it evoke? A friendship, a country visited, an early memory?  This is what I explore.  It is not so much a “how-to” blog, which states, “this is what I made and how”.  Don’t get me wrong:  Such blogs and channels have their value and I watch and read them avidly.  But my blog is more of a reflection of my relationship to food.  I write about why I made a particular dish, and what this dish evoked for me when I made it or sampled it.    I also explore food, not just in my kitchen or a restaurant, but its presence and meaning in movies and other media. 

Another reason my blog is different:  Well if you haven’t already guessed it, I am a non-linear thinker -- ah the joys of ADHD!  So my essays tend to wander from topic to topic, just like my brain and my interests.  To some readers, this may be a drawback, because they will say my blog lacks focus.  Other readers might enjoy the free-association of my writing.  But ultimately, I say, “To thine own self be true”, so do what works for you. 

Thanks for your interest.  If you are new, enjoy what is on my pages.  If you are a veteran reader, may you keep carrying the torch for my blog.  I am very grateful for you, my awesome audience.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Triglycerides, part 2 -- what I did next

After the appointment with the doctor, I alternated between being mad at the world and generally feeling sorry for myself.  Why did it have to be ME, the foodie, the person who has loved food all her life and made a passion out of cooking, to be the one with heart-attack level triglycerides?  (Well, DUH.)
I knew of course that this approach wasn't helping.  But I felt stuck.  Three days later, on the airplane on the way to Miami with my younger son to visit my mother, a very heavyset woman came down the aisle during boarding and sat down next to me.  She even needed an extra seat belt.  "The universe is mocking me", I thought bitterly. "I bet her triglycerides are lower than mine."  (See, even another person's obesity is all about me.  I am the consummate narcissist.)

Truth is, I was scared to care again about my food intake, weight, and health. I didn't really know how to stop eating the way I had been. In a bid to support me, my mother helped me out by making low- carb meals during our entire visit. Not typical of our family pattern.  Only for us could she make changes that she is unwilling to make for herself.  Still, old habits remained:  With a gleam in her eye, she would shove an entire veggie loaf at me and say, "eat as much as you want! It is low-calorie."  But better with a veggie loaf than a cheesecake, right?  And I was grateful for the jump-start.

Then when I returned home, I decided to go ahead and do the diet program from the doctor's clinic, because I needed help with this. The program is called Ideal Protein.  

The first week was a bit of a shock to my system. I spiked a slight fever, which the coach told me can happen, because the pancreas is used to high amounts of carbs and it is thrown off when that changes suddenly.  The weekly weigh-ins with the coach and her support and encouragement have been crucial in keeping me on track. 
Then, two weeks into it, the Carb Dreams started.  I would fall asleep at night and dream about huge portions of cake, fries, doughnuts, you name it, and me gorging and then feeling scared that I had done it.  I would wake up feeling chills and dread, then a disoriented relief at realizing that these were only dreams, and I had not just stuffed my face, acting out the simultaneous horror and craving that is addiction.  Maybe this was a natural stage of dieting, but it didn't feel good.  It was primitive fear, the remnants of old bulimia brain pushing through.  I needed to change my outlook to change my eating, and I needed some guidance on doing it.  So I bought the book by Dr. Tran, the originator of Ideal Protein, "Because It's Your Life".  He discusses the entire mindset and imbalance, psychological and physical, that occurs with overeating, and how this is brought back into balance with mindful eating and awareness, as well as a good diet.  He understands the struggles of his patients, especially with women.  He gets it.  This made me trust the process.  So I stuck to it.

Within a few weeks, my body started responding to the weight loss and diet.  The sharp pain I felt in my left heel when walking, especially in the morning, disappeared after I lost 10 pounds.

Back and headache after wearing high heels:  Gone after 15 pounds off.
After 20 pounds: inflammation in my fingers down. I could wear my rings from high school and college days again.

And now, 5 months later, I have lost almost 60 pounds.  My triglycerides went from 463 to 55.  You can see the before and after results here:  

Cholesterol: 228Triglycerides: 463HDL Cholesterol: 28 LDL Cholesterol (not calculated;  triglyceride levels greater than 400 mg/dL invalidate calculated LDL results.)*
* I am not sure what this means, but it seems to underscore how my numbers sucked!

After (end of weight loss):

Cholesterol: 164Triglycerides: 55HDL Cholesterol: 58LDL Cholesterol: 95

Looking back I can see that the conversation with the doctor, the working relationship I have had with my coach, and the connection I felt with what Dr. Tran states in his book, all helped to motivate me to stay on course with the diet.  Our relationships to others will always influence our relationship to food. 

This week, I entered Phase 4 of the diet:  Maintenance.  Eating with enjoyment, but mindful portions and choices. Then one " fun day" per week, planned in advance, where I can eat what I want within reasonable portions.   And back to cooking, but tweaking the recipes to these principles.  
I bought Chef Verati's book of Phase 4 (maintenance phase) recipes, "Taste the Freedom".  I look forward to trying them.  I still love cooking and now I can keep my passion going.And fun day -- can I eat my carbs but not to the point of stuffing myself? Then going back to healthy eating?  That is the challenge now. I want to make it a good one, because my health and life literally depend on it.

As the Buddhists say:  Simple, but not easy.

Friday, August 16, 2013



I haven't written in a very long while. Ok, in almost a year. In a nutshell, I have still been cooking for my family and my own interest, started my own (non-food related) business, and recently went in for my lipid panel, something I do twice a year due to my crappy genes.

Every time I go, my numbers are horrible, unless I had been on at least a month-long good cycle of exercise and eating, in which case, they drop to simply being bad.  And in the past 6  months I have gained weight, mostly due to bingeing and scavenging my kids' leftovers.  So I put this last lipid panel off till the very last week I could get it before my lab order expired. Ah, good old Avoidance and Denial! I figured I could diet for one week and hope for the best.  So last Friday I got ready for the cardiology appointment, where I was to meet with Dr. Perfect, M.D., to find out the results. Yes, he is fit, intelligent, etc.  In fact I think he is younger than me.  I am not yet old enough to be relieved by this.  But since he is a man, I thought perhaps I could distract him from my numbers if I made up my face and wore a nice outfit. So imagine my disappointment when it didn't work.

"Ok, so you know your triglycerides are very high?" He said.

"Really?" I asked. I thought the week of less food would do something, but no.

"Yes, they are over 400.  And you know you have gained 20 pounds since you first came in here?"

"Oh." Darn it, this place keeps records.

"Have you ever been this heavy?"  Somehow the conversation was veering away from the high numbers into the, excuse the pun, heavy territory of Gut and Butt. Of course, weight and triglycerides are related. But in my head, the doctor started morphing into a nagging version of my Dad in younger years, who also was a doctor and used to bug me about my weight. (Though my Dad used to tease and even name call, or slap my belly and exclaim, "Ample, like your Mother's!" which this doctor does not-- an important distinction.)  I entered a mini-fugue state and started snapping at him about all I have to do, and what did he know about my life, etc. Then I realized I was acting fifteen and a bit nuts, so I stopped myself and apologized. Then I talked about how hard it is to eat less, which he conceded to be true. Ok, some points for him on that. Because of my Daddy issues, Dr. Perfect is the only man on the planet with whom I can tolerate such a conversation.  He told me what he does for portion control in restaurants:  "I eat half, and take the rest home."

"You can stop yourself in the middle of eating it?"  He said yes. But to me, like many bingers, stopping in the middle of eating is like stopping mid-coitus.  Yes, it can be done, but only due to a tremendous amount of will power or external circumstances, like a bomb going off near you or your hyper-critical Grandmother walking in. (The latter would have scared me off both a binge and coitus.  Temporarily.) So that already puts him in a different camp from the Average American Overeater, of which I am a member.

He noted that once I am on a roll, I won't be so hungry.  Also he mentioned the protein diet his clinic runs. I proceeded to quote the statistics on weight-loss and asked how that was different.

"Well you don't have to do this program if you don't want to. You can do low-carb on your own. But I have to tell you..." He shook his head, reading my results.  "Your numbers SUCK. This is tough love I'm giving.  And you want to be around for your family in the years to come."  Do you see what a good doctor he is? Now I can't even use his bad behavior as a reason to be angry, because he is totally professional and even slightly empathic.

I hung my head, sighed and said, "You're right, I know you are right." Because I can go around the mulberry bush about all my points, but at the end of the day I do need to get my health and weight under control.  I guess I will always have a knee-jerk "screw this" reaction when it is called to my attention.  Yet, I would like to fit back into my regular clothes and not feel heel pain when I walk.  Not to mention, my triglyceride levels put me at high risk for a heart attack or worse. (What is worse? I don't know, and I don't want to find out.)   I can rage at myself and my genetics all I want, but that won't change anything.

Still, I do love food. Cooking it, eating it, reading about it. So how do I retain this aspect of myself, while talking care of my health? Any ideas out there? Please share, if so. Because this is a conundrum.

You know what would really suck? If my doctor gets high triglycerides, or something happens to him, God forbid. Then I am really screwed. Maybe I should focus on HIM staying healthy and fit, so at least the one with the know-how to do it has a chance to save my life. It's worth a shot. I'll mention this at my next appointment, when I remember to wear mascara and eyeshadow too. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

In Search of the Subcontinent: Indian Food!

This past Spring and Summer, I ventured into something new for me: Indian, or South Asian, cooking.

[Note:  I say "Indian", but perhaps I should say South Asian food.  I realize the regions and countries are diverse in their cuisine, so forgive my laziness in using this blanket term.  Madhur Jaffrey has a lot to say on this subject if you read her book.]

I love Indian food!  I first tried it when I was 12, in the home of some doctor friends of my mother who served koftas, spicy chicken, and jack fruit.  I remember lots of yellow color in the vegetables...probably turmeric. And I remember my eyeballs felt like they were bleeding from the spices, which were totally unfamiliar. 
A few years later, a Pakistani colleague of my mother's often brought a sweet, milk-based dessert called "Ras malai', made by his wife, to parties.  I was crazy about it.
Then one of my best friends in High School, Huma, had parents from Pakistan, and sometimes I would get to eat the South Asian cooking at her house when we hung out. They were Muslims, so the dishes had no pork.  I slowly grew accustomed to the 'heat' of the food.
And in college my friend Anita, who was Rajasthani (North Indian) and vegetarian, would often bring the Daals and Roti's that her mother made at home, and share  with us, her dorm friends.
So Subcontinent food grew on me, till I even convinced my parents to try a new Tandoori restaurant in Downtown Chicago called, The Klay Oven.  They liked it.  I loved it.
   Over the years, as the United States has embraced more and more international food, many South Asian mixes and frozen variety foods have been available in grocery stores, I have taken advantage and bought frozen Naan or bottled Chicken Korma sauce. But these things still felt incomplete somehow, and I balked at eating the sauce when I saw the amount of fat and sodium in each prepared bottle. How hard can it be to make this from scratch? I wondered. I wanted to learn.

So early this year, I played with the idea. One of my previous supervisors had given me Madhur Jaffrey's famous cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Cooking. But upon opening the book and seeing the numerous, unfamiliar ingredients like fenugreek, asafetida and garam masala, I felt bewildered. What were these things? Plus, even the "easier" recipes required an average of five to seven ingredients, most of which were utterly unknown to me. So I put the book aside, feeling overwhelmed and confused.
But a few months later, I revisited this book and the notion of Indian cooking, because one day, after picking up something at the regional referral veterinary center for our dog, I noticed there was an Indian grocery across the street, called, "Krishna Grocery". Intrigued, I walked in and wandered the narrow aisles for awhile. The pungent, fragrant scents! I wanted to buy nearly everything, but I realized that without the specific recipes to guide me, I was flying blind. So back at home I once again picked up Madhur Jaffrey's book and scrutinized the recipes more carefully, calling my Rajasthani friend Anita for some guidance on selecting and buying ingredients.
  "Deep and Laxshmi are among the best brands", she said.
"Hold the garam masala to your nose and buy the one that smells the most to your liking", was another piece of advice.  (As someone new to Indian cooking, I really didn't know which would be the best, so I just picked up the only ground garam masala they had available.  I was too scared to buy and grind up the whole spices, because I have heard that dry bay leaves can get stuck in the throat.)
 On my next trip, I brought a list of the spices that appeared the most frequently in Jaffrey's book, and bought those. I also bought cauliflower, fresh ginger, and fresh cilantro, or "Chinese parsley", as she described it, because I wanted to make a cauliflower recipe from the book. And finally, I bought moong dal, or green lentils.
Slowly I got the hang of these Indian recipes, most of which are from Delhi, in the North, according to Jaffrey.

A Westerner's Findings

 1.  The cooking part itself was not so difficult; the most time-consuming part of the process was assembling and prepping the ingredients. Some chicken dishes, for example, only required broiling the chicken for 10 minutes, but the marinade included 10 ingredients that had to be gathered and blended, then poured over the chicken, and the entire dish would need to marinate for at least 4 hours. To make lentils, they had to be soaked in water overnight before being made into a stew. This food is not made on the fly, or "instant". I could really see that it requires someone who is home for long periods of time, who plans ahead, and who can tend to various stages of prep work. I imagine homes with grandmothers and mothers who spend much of their time preparing food for their families. I imagine maternal types, as is usually the case in traditional homes worldwide.
But interestingly, the more I cooked these dishes, the more it became second nature to prep everything. I developed systems. For vegetable dishes, I would first wash, peel and cut the vegetables themselves, then I would arrange the spices on a plate, side-by-side along the edges, in the order in which they were to be added to the pan or dish. "Mise en place", the French call it. (Everything in its place.) Then I would heat up the pans and add the prepped ingredients in order.
I discovered that I could cheat a little bit on the chicken dishes if necessary. This past Tuesday I started cooking at 6pm and I did not therefore have time to marinate the chicken for a minimum of 4 hours. So prepared the marinade in the blender, per the instructions, then poured it over the chicken for 30 minutes instead. It still tasted quite good, in my opinion.

2. Jaffrey's book is a great launching pad; then you can move to other South Asian recipes.

I got a little braver and branched out to some websites for more recipes.  I made a South Asian version of brussels sprouts, Brussel Sprouts Subzi, from a recipe I found on the website, Show Me The Curry.

3. Have some Zantac or other heartburn preventive on hand.
If you are not used to the array of spices, South Asian food can be a bit heavy on your system.  I can't eat it more than 1-2 times weekly because the spices tend to give me heartburn.  So I take a Zantac or Pepcid about 1 hour before dinner.

4. Kids may take some convincing.  Good luck.
Our kids refused to touch any of the food except the naan bread.  But hey, slow steps.  At least they like the naan!  Our younger son even orders mango lassis (yogurt-based fruit "shakes") when we eat out.  If your children are more adventurous, I am impressed.

5. My family and I gravitate toward Northern Indian food.
This is because the dishes are often meat- and bread-based, so they are more familiar to a "Westerner's" palate.  Or so I think.  But the southern dishes are delicious too.

6. When you are ready, try the instant spice mixes.
We did buy a packet of Channa Daal (spicy chick pea) mix, on the advice of my friend Anita.  I'll probably make it one night when I have a "plain" meal that needs jazzing up and am too tired or hurried for a more laborious meal.

7. If you want to buy anything ready-made, buy the bread and sweets.
Frozen and fresh naan are sold in many Indian groceries, and both are delicious with a bit of butter or plain. Making and baking bread tends to be a long involved process, in my opinion, and that is one area to go for efficiency.  Same with sweets -- unless I one day have tons of time to melt down sweetened milk, I prefer to buy my desserts.

So the Indian cooking I have done still requires more prep and planning than, say, dry pasta. But it is not quite so daunting as it seemed to be when I first tried to learn about it. Really, it is like travel to a foreign country. The unknown can scare you, but just step back and learn about it piece by piece. Allow friends in the know to guide you.  Rely on a few basic known ingredients at first, and have patience and an open mind. You might end up experiencing something complex and delicious. 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Forgetfulness and Fish Pie: The Empanada Gallega

 It's been far too long since I've written. This past autumn was eventful. My father, about whom I've written previously, has Alzheimer's Disease. With ruthless rapidity the disease took over his functioning last year until he stopped working, differentiating between night and day, and being able to speak in more than short sentences. Through all of this, though, what is remarkable is how his preferences regarding food have changed. Like his cognitive abilities, his food preferences seem to have reverted to a childhood state.

My father was born in Argentina to parents with origins in Galicia, Spain. This is a Celtic, rainy, green, Northwestern province of Spain along the Atlantic Ocean, whose inhabitants have historically been small-plot farmers and seafarers.  I was surprised to learn that, according to William Least-Heat Moon's book, Columbus in the Americas, Christopher Columbus's flagship, The Santa Maria, carried the moniker La Gallega ("The Galician woman"), for the region where she was built. For centuries, Galicia has lived off land and sea. Not surprisingly, its cuisine is often seafood-based.

One signature Galician dish that my Father's sister, Maria Carmen, prepares regularly is the Empanada Gallega, a savory pie made with dough and filled with tuna, onions, sweet peppers, spices, and eggs. (The fillings can vary, from tuna to shredded chicken, beef, or even spinach, like the Greek Spanakopita.)   Maria Carmen visited last year from Buenos Aires and prepared this dish, and my Dad gobbled it up.  This shocked us all because for most of his adult life, he had spurned seafood. I do not recall his ever choosing fish at a restaurant, given a choice. Ever. Sometimes he would choose octopus, another popular dish in Galician cuisine, but even that was rare. More often he preferred the red meat and pasta dishes more typical of Argentina, where he was born and grew up.  (He liked the Argentine empanada, a slightly different type, a turnover usually filled with some variation of ground meat, spices, olives and raisins.) But now he could not get enough of the Empanada Gallega, and his lack of short-term memory only aggravated his binges. On one recent visit, I witnessed him devour two full meals and 10 minutes later ask, "When will dinner be ready?" So on many occasions, he has eaten two or even three consecutive huge slices with gusto. This from a man who had maintained an average weight and modest appetite for decades.

It was as though the sight, the smell and taste of Empanada Gallega triggered something deep-seated and powerful. Early childhood memories, perhaps, of his mother feeding him at a kitchen table for lunch on a Sunday afternoon.  I picture him at five or six years old, swinging his small legs and scrutinizing that pie with a child's typical ambivalence of savory foods with chunky vegetable stuff sticking out of the sides. Probably he would sniff it it before tasting, an automatic gesture that he never lost around "new" food, and which I inherited from him.  Then he would taste it, shrug, and finish most of it under his mother's urging.  Is that it?  Primal memories of his mother that he associates with Empanada Gallega?  Or perhaps, all along, he had liked it, but his cognitive filters told him to steer clear of fish, and when those filters eroded, so did his aversion?   Sadly, he cannot tell me what it is that drives this craving for the Galician fish pie, now that his senility has activated it. I can only bear witness to his eating it.  And in a way it is a comforting irony:  As his consciousness fades, a connection to his heritage remains and has even grown stronger.

So here is the recipe. Note: You can substitute spinach or chicken for the fish ingredients if you wish. This is a hardy, adaptable dish, probably like the Galician folk who invented or at least adapted it.

Empanada Gallega a la Tia Maria Carmen

1 long Pyrex pan (14x 9)
1 rolling pin
Lightly floured surface
Saute pan
Baker's spray
Pastry brush

Buy tapas de empanadas (dough), or phyllo dough, or 1 pkg of French Pastry dough (preferred) --(each pkg has 2 sheets).
Let thaw overnight. Keep it cool and work it last so it stays soft and moist, but not soggy.

Filling base (can be done ahead and refrigerated, or frozen for up to 4 months)
2 large yellow or sweet onions sliced thin
2 red peppers seeded, peeled, sliced thin
Olive or veg oil
2 tsp sweet paprika
Salt & pepper to taste
thyme (optional)
1 raw egg, beaten (for dough)

3 to 4 7-ounce chunk light tuna in water, drained, forked slightly to even out texture
3-4 hard-boiled eggs, sliced (can throw out some yolks)

Saute peppers in oil. When a bit softened, add onions, salt, pepper, and sweet paprika. Saute all till onions are clear and cooked.

Spray baker's spray on Pyrex dish and lightly flour a surface. With rolling pin, stretch 1 dough sheet to the length of the Pyrex.

When mixture cools, prep dough on pyrex. Add veggie/spice mixture on top, add tuna on that, then eggs sliced on top, then dough crust on top and seal the sides. Brush dough with beaten egg to add shine.

*Filling can be substituted with 3 frozen chopped spinach packages. Add thyme, salt/pepper, and 2 beaten eggs. Mix all, then add any cheese (if Feta, buy at specialty store). Pour mixture onto dough, seal top layer of dough, and bake.
-or pulled turkey, pork, chicken, or codfish, according to tuna-based recipe.