Sunday, February 19, 2017

Polenta with Winter Salad, Poached Egg, and Blue Cheese

Could there be anything more comforting than a bowl of hot polenta topped with a runny egg? Yep. If it's also accompanied by bursting cherry tomatoes and warmed radicchio and frisée. And, people, it has been one rainy winter, so we're looking for savory comfort food. Food to be eaten while it rains, again. Food to be eaten while the sky is grey. Food for a Sunday afternoon.

Enter Sarah Copeland, the food director for Real Simple. In her second cookbook, Feast, she gives an array of polenta options--one for each season.  
  • Winter: Polenta with Winter Salad, Poached Egg, and Blue Cheese
  • Spring: Polenta with Sugar Snaps
  • Summer: Polenta with Grilled Tomatoes and Zucchini
  • Fall: Polenta with Mushroom Pomodoro
Don't those all sound delicious? I see a future for me and polenta.

But what we really want to focus on here, friends, is this Winter Salad topping: radicchio, frisée, and a handful of sautéed cherry tomatoes. 

And it doesn't matter that these are somewhat tasteless and out-of-season tomatoes in one of those plastic clam shells, because we're going to coax a ton of flavor out of them, sally them right next to some sharp and bitter lettuces, and top with creamy blue cheese.  

We can do this.

And we are going to jump whole-heartedly into this quite pretty corn porridge and snuggle in for an afternoon of reading and rain (to be followed by an evening of visitors and probably more rain). 


Polenta with Winter Salad, Poached Egg, and Blue Cheese

Adapted from Sarah Copeland's Feast

4 Servings

½ cups water
1 cup polenta
1 ¼ cup whole milk
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 ounce cheddar cheese, grated
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 handful cherry tomatoes
Freshly ground pepper
¼ small head radicchio, chopped into bite-size pieces
½ head frisée, town into bite-size pieces
Balsamic vinegar
1 tsp white vinegar
4 large eggs
1-2 ounces blue cheese (Danish blue, Roquefort, Valdeon Blue, or Gorgonzola)


1. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Slowly add the polenta, stir with a wooden spoon, and add 1 tsp salt. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the polenta is tender and fully cooked, about 20 minutes. Add the milk, 2 Tbsp butter, and the cheddar to the polenta and stir tether over medium-low heat until just warmed through soft enough to drop easily from a spoon. Cover to keep warm.

2.  Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes, and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are charred and have burst, about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the radicchio and frisée and cook until wilted, about 3 minutes. Stir in a dash of balsamic vinegar, the remaining ½ cup water, and the remaining 1 Tbsp butter. Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir everything together.

3.  Fill a shallow skillet two-thirds full with salted water and bring to a gentle simmer. Add the teaspoon of white vinegar (the acid helps keep the egg from spreading or "feathering" too far). Crack each egg individually into a small bowl and then carefully slip each one into the water. Poach the eggs for 3-4 minutes, until the whites have set but the yolks are still soft. Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon, and place on a paper-towel-lined plate. 

4.  Spoon the polenta into bowls and top with the warm salad and a poached egg. Crumble the blue cheese over the top before serving.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Long-Cooked Kale, Please (with Broth)

Oh sure, kale seems to have had its moment. And many in the past two years have declared that kale has passed its prime and has been replaced by watercress, insects, amaranth, or dulse. People have gotten kale overload, ever since kale got its own year (2012) at Bon Appetit and procured its own National Day (2013) with cringe-inducing Kaleabrations.

But I still like kale. Especially if it is cooked for a really long time. I admit, I can leave raw or massaged kale aside. I find it too bitter and chewy. (Plus, I experience envy, for I wish to be massaged before a meal, too.)  

No, my friends, no tough kale that requires masticating like a cud animal for me.  

I want my kale mellow and melting.

Enter David Tanis. 

There is not much to this dish, and that's the point. In Spain's response to the American South's long-braised collard greens comes this long-cooked kale with spicy chorizo and melted onions. 

May I recommend a rather liberal smattering of chile peppers on top, and then you, my friend, will have a simple dinner tonight. May I also recommend a triangle of well-toasted garlic bread? 

A couple of links that might tickle your fancy (because apparently I am channeling my deceased grandmother in saying that):

  • How did kale become so famous? The folks at mindbodygreen have some theories. Go check them out.
  • Want another long-cooked kale recipe because this one wasn't enough?  Try this one--I know I will.

So, let's keep it simple tonight, friends, and scoop up a bowl of long-cooked kale. Feel free to slurp the broth, or top toasted garlic bread with a heaping pile of kale. 

Either way, you'll be rethinking watercress or insects or whatever else will be stylish this year. We just want some good food.


Long Cooked Kale with Broth

Adapted From David Tanis' One Good Dish

4-6 Servings

2 lbs kale
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, sliced
½ lb Spanish chorizo, sliced
Large pinch of red pepper flakes
1 cup chicken broth
Sherry vinegar
Crusty bread, sliced


1. Cut the kale crosswise into 2-inch pieces, discarding particularly tough stems (although you can keep much of the central stalk, as you'll be cooking them for so long).  Wash twice in cold water and drain.

2.  Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions, season with salt and pepper, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Adjust the heat as necessary so that the onions don't over-brown. Add the chorizo and red pepper flakes and cook for 2 minutes more.

3.  Add the kale, sprinkling liberally with salt, then turn the heat to high and stir with a wooden spoon to help the greens wilt. Add chicken broth and continue to stir until it is simmering briskly. Cover and reduce the heat to low; it should be brothy--add more water if necessary. Cook the kale slowly, stirring occasionally, for about 45-60 minutes until very tender.

4.  Taste and adjust salt and pepper, adding a few drops of sherry vinegar. Serve with sliced crusty bread to sop up the broth.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Salt-Preserved Meyer Lemons

Okay, friends.  Round two. As you know, Marisa McClellan from Food in Jars has set forth a Mastery Challenge, and we're in month two.  January was marmalade, and February offers up one of my favorite ways to preserve food: salt preserving. Come on, there is nothing simpler than salt preserving. Seriously, nothing.

Preserved lemons can be rather pricey.  This morning, the husband and I walked up to our favorite coffee place (Hi, Highwire!) and walked through Market Hall. A small pint of preserved lemons was $15. Yikes. 

Turns out I needed about three lemons per jar to equal a pound. 

But you can make your own, quite cheaply. All that's required to transform your lemons is salt and patience. I have an abundance of one, and it's not patience.

So here you go, simple and easy.  And if you want to get fancy, you can add some spices (as I do for one of my jars, per Marisa McClellan's suggestion). But that's not required. You keep your lemons unadorned. 

Now, here's the rub...we need to wait three weeks. Three weeks before we're puréeing lemons for salad dressing or adding them into a tagine or spooning them on roast lamb or chopping them into a harissa and preserved lemon relish or mashing them onto crostini with peas and asparagus. I have plans, friends, and we better get preserving if we want March to be filled with lemony goodness.


Salt-Preserved Meyer Lemons

Adapted from Marisa McClellan's Preserving by the Pint

1 24-ounce (pint and a half) jar

1 pound Meyer lemons, preferably organic
½ cup kosher salt
1 cinnamon stick
½ tsp black peppercorns
½ tsp whole cloves
½ tsp allspice berries

1. Wash the lemons well. Trim away the stem end and slice the lemons into 6 segments per piece of fruit.

2. Place the spices in a large, wide-mouth jar. Pour 1 Tbsp of kosher salt into the bottom of the jar and pack in the first 6 segments of lemon. Top with salt and then more lemon and continue to alternate until the jar is filled and you're out of lemons. Place a tight-fitting lid on the jar and give it a shake.

3.  Let the jar sit in a cool, dark place for 2-3 weeks. Shake the jar daily to help distribute the salt, spices, and liquid. The lemons will have started out quite dry, but as they age, they should release enough liquid so that the lemons are mostly submerged.  Open the lid every few days to release the fermentation pressure.

4.  Once the lemon skins look soft and the liquid has taken on a pleasantly funky, tangy taste, put the jar in the fridge. They will keep up to a year.

You can also skip all the spices and just make this with 1 pound of lemons and 1/2 cup of salt.  That's it. It's that simple.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Pomegranate and Raspberry Chutney in In the Orchard, the Swallows // Cook Your Books

And now for entry #2 in what appears to be a longform series. 

In this Cook Your Books series, I have chosen 15 books to read in 2017 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories. My theory (bogus it might turn out to be) is that all 15 of these books will somehow connect to food. And I plan to write about that food. This second installment is a book with fewer than 150 pages. (Here's your second warning:  It turns out these entries on Cook Your Books are long ones. Time to settle in.)

 In the Orchard, the Swallows  by Peter Hobbs appears on this list simply because of its length. My arbitrary category dictated a book with fewer than 150 pages, and a quick Google search for "Best Books under 150 Pages" launched this one to to the top of my possible books to read. 

And what a book it was.

The book opens with an unnamed narrator who has been thrust back into the world after having spent the last 15 years in a Pakistani prison. His crimes? The unblemished connection to Saba, the daughter of a powerful politician, and the defense of his own life. While in prison, he endures torture, sexual abuse, malnutrition, disease, and overcrowding--all of which Hobbs writes with a painful, spare clarity. His survival in prison is dependent on his memory of love and of freedom embodied by Saba; and once out of prison, his survival is due to the generosity of a scholarly poet Abbas, who discovers the narrator unconscious by the road and saves him from certain death.  

In the present day, the narrator daily visits his family's former pomegranate orchard----his father's labor of love and the place the unnamed narrator spent a chaste night with Saba so long ago.  Now he sits beneath neglected trees, watching as the blossoms grow into crowns of fruit with "slim and green" flesh (26). The summer passes, and we watch as he composes a letter to Saba and the pomegranates ripen.

This seems simple enough. Indeed, Hobbs' story is simple and its telling straightforwards, but it is also haunting in its spareness. For this is not just a tale of a young man falling into middle age after his youth is stolen from him; it is also a political tale of Pakistan, as corruption takes root while war grinds on in Afghanistan.

However, Hobbs' focus always is on this love story, not because it supersedes war in terms of importance. No, it's because it helps to contextualize hope in the face of such devastation--both within prison and without. 

Fifteen years ago, the unnamed narrator, then only a teenage boy, gave a gift to Saba while in the fruit stalls of the market:
I bent down to my bags, and took from one of them the finest pomegranate I could find. Then I walked up to you, and waited for you to look at me. Your stopped talking, and stared at me curiously. Then I held the fruit out at arm's length. I placed its weight in your hand--which you had put out almost in surprise--and then I walked away. I gave you a pomegranate, then I walked away...And that was our first meeting. (30)
I love the simplicity of that: "I gave you a pomegranate, then I walked away..." His sweet simplicity and the seriousness of the gesture. 

And she returned the gift with her name, which the narrator carries with him, "the most precious thing [he] owned" (31) and he is careful not to speak it often. However, later, in the dark of his imprisonment, he whispers her name so that "something of you would be restored to me, and something of myself would be saved" (31). Fruit for a name. A name for a life. Sure, this could almost smack of sentimentality: however, in such a pared down book that does not shrink from spare descriptions of torture and neglect, this focus on a simple pomegranate in exchange for a name seems transaction enough to sustain both narrator and reader. 

Upon the narrator's release from prison, we watch as he details the process of learning to read and write with the poet Abbas. Daily, he sits beneath the ripening orchard, remembers his short time with Saba, and speaks of endurance and healing. Later we learn that he is writing this to Saba, and we hear him describing not just the pomegranates, but himself and the healing he is undergoing beneath these trees:
Among the branches the pomegranates are ripening. The last of the petals from their flowers has fallen. I was tempted to take one, but they are not yet at their best, the colour of their skin not yet warm, and so I will be patient. The promise of a fruit freshly opened, its juice running from broken arils, is exquisite, and will enable the walk to come easier still. I have longed to taste one again. The thought of it is enough to cause my mouth to water, my stomach to gurgle. The memory of that taste is no less than the memory of my childhood. Whenever my sisters or I suffered an upset stomach we were given a cup of juice morning and evening while we were ill, to settle our bellies once again. We were given pomegranate to soothe cuts and grazes, to ease coughs, to cool fever. (108-9)

And soon the descriptions become those of pleasure and care, even when both have been denied the narrator for so long:
Today I broke open a pomegranate. I have been watching them carefully, and the earliest among them are beautifully ripe. I know I should not take one, but I could not resist. Its absence will hardly be noticed, and my body has been so thirsty for the taste. Eat of their fruits when they ripen, says the Qur'an. I spent a long time choosing the finest one I could find, whose skin was firm, glowing like your cheeks in the morning light. I picked it carefully, so as not to disturb the other fruits around it, and then I held its weight in my hand, gripping it with my palm and fingers, skin against skin. To test its ripeness I held it to my ear and tapped it, and was regarded with that strange and perfect sound, almost metallic in its tone. (115)
The pomegranate that was once given as a gift to Saba becomes a gift to himself, a gift of remembering her childish cheeks, her innocence, and as such his own innocence in a world that can be known through the simple tapping of the fruit. The pomegranate is something solid, knowable, and to be held dear, yet it is sacred, unknowable, and a precious vessel for faith.  He continues:
When we were young my mother told us this hadith: that the pomegranate was among the trees grown in the gardens of paradise, and that all such tress are descended from it. So within each fruit is a pip that belongs to that original tree, and when we eat, we must not miss a single aril, in case it is the sacred one. (115-6)
Within each pomegranate holds the potential for the sacred, for precious care. During the mornings, Abbas and his daughter teach the unnamed narrator to read and to write in Abbas's back garden. And so he writes, directing this slim book as an apostrophe to Saba. He compares his writing to her as to eating fruit: "I have had so much to say to you, and had wondered for a long time how I might do so. In person, it would come in a rush. I would have too much to tell, and no way to begin. This way, I have not needed to tell you everything at once, but just one piece at a time, measured out in bites, as though you were eating a fruit" (126). The act of writing slows him down, ensures he savors each word, each moment, including the torture, the imprisonment, the neglect, for it is as much his story as is the gift of her name, the night spent beneath the pomegranate trees, and the confrontation with her father. 

In the present day of the book, the war in Afghanistan escalates, and the Taliban move in, bomb girls' schools, impose sharia, and kill teachers. Corruption infiltrates and some men exploit the US desire for an easy justice: Pakistani men claim that other innocent men are terrorists and sell them to the US.

And still the unnamed narrator writes his love story to a girl who is now a woman, who may not even know he is alive, who has probably married and created a life of her own, separate from him. Still he writes and tells his story to her. To us.

This is a deeply personal book about a boy who innocently loved a girl and a man who watches as his country divides itself on a political and communal level in order to appease those who do not fully understand. I hate to be reductive, but reading these kinds of political books, where the personal is profoundly political seems important right now.

So then Hobbs comes back to the food. Mostly pomegranates. Almost always the pomegranates.  As the book begins to wind down to its close, the narrator sees the potential for devastation as the farmer neglects his crop:
In the orchard the pomegranates hang ripely on the trees, their red skins darkening by the day, turning to crimsons and purples. They should have been picked by now. Every morning I arrive expecting the branches to be emptied, but still they are full. It is clear that the owner is neglectful of his crop. Perhaps it is simply that he does not know what he is doing or perhaps he does not need the income, and the orchard was indeed merely a gift he did not want, a payment for some service rendered or some loyalty proven. It would make me terribly sad to think so, to see land that was tended for years with love given over to greed and waste. The fruit will begin to split if it is left for much longer. Soon, the touch of rain on its stretched skin will be enough to cause it to swell and open. A storm will devastate the crop (123).
 Time is beginning to ravage this fruit, and if nothing is done--if the fruit is forgotten--it will be destroyed.

In the final pages of the book, the pomegranates are finally harvested but done so carelessly (127). Here, among a ground littered with wasted and neglected fruit, pushed aside out of negligence or greed or waste, the narrator imagines that Saba will find him again in the orchard and he will give her his notebook: "He will stand, and carefully, like a child offering a piece of fruit, he will hold out the book to you. 'Here,' he will say. 'Take this. It is for you. It is finished'" (137). 

He imagines that he will pass on the preventable loss of innocence that was based on the whims and desire of her father and his captors--those with an unexamined power. She may never return to him. He may never be able to give her the notebook. But in the act of our reading this notebook, we can see that he was once able to give the gift of the fruit with each aril holding the possibility for the sacred, and that now he can give the gift of this notebook with its ability to name things as they are, carefully and sparely.


Pomegranate and Raspberry Chutney

"I dug my thumbs together to break the outer rind, and then prised the fruit apart, opening it into two halves, watching the inner cells tear away from the soft, bitter tissue that holds them. My hands shook as I raised it to my mouth. And the taste of the juice on my tongue! It was so sweet my lips quivered, but with that faint dry sourness in my mouth afterwards. It was wonderful. I gulped the pieces, careful not to miss a single aril" (In the Orchards, The Swallows 115).

Adapted from Summaya Usmani's Summers Under the Tamarind Tree: Recipes and memories from Pakistan.  

This is a gorgeous little recipe from a delightful cookbook that focuses on Pakistani cooking. With the brightness of the raspberries next to the acidic dryness of the pomegranates, you're working with what would otherwise appear to be a sweet chutney. However, the cumin seeds and the black pepper blast this into a sauce that is perfect alongside lamb kofta, which is how we ate it.  Bonus, Summaya Usmani is a blogger at My Tamarind Kitchen, although her site seems a little quiet these days. That still won't keep us from looking at gorgeous older posts.

Serves 3-4


1 pint of raspberries
½ pomegranate, de-seeded
½ tsp freshly ground black peppercorns
½ tsp black or pink salt* 
½ tsp dry-roasted cumin seeds
juice of ½ a lime

*black salt is quite sulphurous to me; I used pink salt


1. Put the raspberries and pomegranate in a bowl and crush them using the back of a fork until mushy and the juice from the pomegranate mixes with the crushed raspberries.

2.  Add the spices, the salt, and the lime juices, and stir.  Serve cold and eat within 24 hours.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Roasted Tomato Bisque

It's winter, and I want tomatoes. This always happens.

So what's a tomato-fiend to do? 

Coax the flavor out of winter tomatoes, that's what.

In Sarah Copeland's Feast, she presents a lovely mid-winter tomato soup (that, yes, would probably be even better if it were a late-summer soup) that guarantees satisfaction of any tomato craving. 

Roasting tomatoes puts your taste buds on full blast: think intense, sweet, and smoky. Think perfect for pairing with rosemary or paprika or thyme. Think the perfect tomato on steroids. 

Yes, yes, I hear you that one should roast tomatoes in the summer when they're at their peak. And I agree with you. But, even in the winter with mealy Romas or hefty greenhouse tomatoes, you're going to get good results. Now imagine roasting tomatoes alongside some sweet red bell peppers, hearty onions, and pungent garlic? 

People, we're talking full-on, umami heaven.

How about some tomato roasting tips?

  • Roast flesh-side down. This helps trap the pulp and seeds and makes for easy skin removal. Plus it lends a nice char to the skin.
  • You can choose to remove the pulp and seeds, but your roasted tomatoes will be drier and, perhaps, a little less intense. For this soup, you don't need drier tomatoes, but you might have other needs on other days.
  • You can also remove the skins at the end of the roasting. I didn't for this soup because I wanted a little more texture in the soup. But most times, you're going to want to peel the skin off of the tomato at the end. 
  • Don't be afraid to roast more tomatoes than are called for here. Just put the leftover roasted tomatoes in the fridge. They won't last very long anyway. Because you're going to eat them as midnight snacks.

After a quick purée and a splash of dairy, you've got yourself a tomato bisque. Top this soup off with some fat--really green olive oil and a shaving of Parmesan cheese--and we're all set no matter the season.

What more do you need? I think just a hunk of bread on the side. Maybe even rub a garlic clove all over the bread. Maybe slather some butter on that bread. Maybe not.

People, we're having tomatoes in January. 


Roasted Tomato Bisque

Adapted from Sarah Copeland's Feast

4 Servings

Olive oil, for the baking sheets and veggies
5 large tomatoes, quartered
salt and pepper
1/2 tsp paprika, plus more for seasoning
1 red bell pepper, seeded and quartered
2 large yellow onions, quartered
4 garlic cloves, smashed
2½ cups veggie or chicken broth
½-1 cup milk (or cream or ½ and ½)
Olive oil and Parmesan cheese for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Brush two rimmed baking sheets with olive oil. Spread the tomatoes out on one of the baking sheets, season with salt, black pepper, and ½ tsp of paprika. Add 2 garlic cloves to the baking sheet. Toss the bell pepper, onions, and remaining 2 cloves of garlic with olive oil in a large bowl, season with salt and black pepper, and spread out on a second baking sheet. Roast the tomatoes and veggies for about 30-40 minutes, stirring the veggies about halfway through.

2.  Transfer the tomatoes and vegetables to a blender or food processor and add the stock. Blend until smooth, about 3 minutes. (If you have an immersion blender, by all means, go to it in a large stock pot.) Transfer the blended veggies to a large stock pot. 

3.  Add ½ cup milk and stir to combine. (Or you can use cream or half and half. You choose how thick you want your soup. Or maybe you want almond milk instead to keep this vegan.) Taste and add up to ½ cup more milk, and season with salt and more paprika, if needed. Keep warm over low heat until ready to serve.

4.  Ladle the soup into bowls and drizzle with olive oil. Shave some Parmesan over the top.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe

Let's make a really tasty Tuesday-night dinner, shall we?

This one is happily simple, and definitely something you can whip up after a long day at work. While it does take a certain palate (so, you say you like chile peppers? Ha. Let's try them paired with the bitterness of rapini!), this comforting pasta dish satisfies during the winter months and you're hankering for some greens.

This dish a pretty traditional one from the Southern Italian region of Apulia (think: heel of the boot). There, this veggie goes by a whole host of names, including raab, rapini, friariélli, broccoletti di rapacime di rapa, and simply cima. 

Sure, there's a lot to make you think it's closely related to broccoli--what, with the color and the little flowering buds reminiscent of our favorite standby, broccoli. While they are both brassicas, that's where the family tree branches. This bitter green with serrated leaves is much more closely related to that pungent turnip than it is to broccoli.  

And we're all the better for it.

No matter what you call it, the green is a perfect blast of bitterness against the simple pasta known as orecchiette--which means "little ear" in reference to the shape of the pasta. 

Domed with ridges on the outside and a smooth bowl on the inside, this is the perfect pasta for scooping up a chile flake or an astringent veggie leaf.

I love broccoli rabe--I love its boldness. This is not a sit-in-the-background kind of vegetable. This is no layering veggie that adds subtlety to a dish. Oh no. This is a robust green that demands attention. Which is why it's perfectly paired with chile peppers and anchovies (and if you want, why not throw in some garlic?). 

Some people blanch their broccoli rabe before sautéing it. The argument is that the water and salt will bring out some of the sweetness.  I say do that only if you want to tame some of the bitterness. I, however, do not want tame. I want lip-puckering sharpness that pairs so well with the creaminess of ricotta salata or parmesan. People, be bold here.

And this dish comes together in about the time it takes you to boil a pot of water and cook the orecchiette to al dente status. So, about 20-25 minutes. Not bad for a Tuesday, huh?


Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe

Very Liberally Adapted from The Country Cooking of Italy

3-4 Servings

8 ounces orecchiette
½ cup olive oil
Chile flakes
6 anchovy fillets, minced (optional)
½ lb broccoli rabe, finely chopped
Ricotta Salata, Pecorinio, and/or Parmesan
Toasted bread crumbs

1. Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. When it is boiling, raise the heat to high and add the orecchiette. Cook until the pasta is al dente, about 10-12 minutes.

2.  Meanwhile heat the olive oil in a medium pan. Add the chile flakes and anchovy (if using) and cook until just fragrant, about 1-2 minutes. Add the broccoli rabe, and cook until wilted, about 5-7 minutes. 

3. When the pasta is ready, drain and transfer to a warmed serving bowl. Mix in the greens. season generously with pepper; if necessary, add a little salt. 

4.  Grate or thinly slice some cheese over the top and sprinkle with bread crumbs.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Real Chai Made to Order

It has been dark and cold and rainy here lately.  In other words, it has been perfect. 

And when it is perfectly dark and perfectly cold and perfectly rainy, what's the best thing to do? Make a hot beverage and curl up with a good book.

So I turned to David Tanis, whom I adore, and I made my own chai. Come with me on a journey far, far away, will you? A journey to the exotic land of Eugene, Oregon circa 1997.

I was a 22-year-old graduate student on a vacation to see a dear friend whom I had met while abroad. She was (is!) funny, urbane, and left-coast. She looked like Rachel from Friends. At a time when everyone wanted to look like Rachel from Friends. (Let's face it: we all still  want to look like Rachel from Friends.) She could drink a pint and she could dance well into the early morning. She was game for adventures at Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland, and she dragged my tipsy butt home from bars in Edinburgh. She hiked with me through bogs in Connemara (and we complained the whole way through) and she indulged my unrequited crush on a German exchange student whose name I never knew. She was perfect, and when we returned from our time abroad, she meandered back to Oregon, and I landed in Salt Lake City.  Enter summer road trip to Oregon. 


I had never been to Eugene or Portland or Florence or Corvalis. All places she took me in a whirlwind tour. And while I remember playing basketball in the Portland moonlight as we waited for our dinner reservation and hiking up the Columbia River Gorge to see rainforests and waterfalls, I also remember our trip to some unnamed strip mall kiosk, where she said, "I think you'll like this." For, you see, I was an indefatigable tea drinker in Ireland. From morning to night, with or without milk and sugar, I could suck down a cuppa. And she presented to me my very first cup of chai. 

Remember: this was the mid-to-late 90s. The company Oregon Chai had been founded in 1991, but took three years to come up with its flavor profile. By 1997, masala chai could be found at every Northwest neighborhood coffee shop but had only offered its tendrils into the Wasatch Mountain Range market. We may thank (or curse, your choice) Starbucks for the introduction of this fabulous beverage to world-naive young adults. I was one of them. 

And so I ended up at some kiosk with my darling friend and she offered the drink, certain of my affinity for it without questioning. I was Alice in this Northwest wonderland, and she was saying, "Here drink this." And I did. 

And I was ruined.

Nowadays, I am particular about my Masala Chai. Not too sweet. Definitely heavy on the cardamom, please. (In fact, one of my favorite chais can be found at the Goodlife Cafe and Bakery in Mendocino (oh, that heady and floral note of cardamom!)). I prefer my chai hot in a good earthenware mug on a cold and rainy day, but I will take it even iced on a sweltering day if need be.  

But David Tanis taught me a little secret. It's so much better if you make it yourself. This recipe has all the expected flavors--cinnamon, cardamom, cloves. But it's the toasted quality that knocks this little drink well out of the realm of any kiosk, cornerstore, favorite coffee shop, or big chain bakery. This is the way to have chai. This is the made-to-order chai that I have been aching for ever since that fateful 1997 day. And I can make it in my own kitchen. 

And I am deeply indebted to this dear friend of mine. For chai is, indeed, a great pleasure of my life, especially on a perfectly rainy day.


Real Chai Made to Order

Adapted From David Tanis' One Good Dish

2 Servings

½ tsp fennel or anise seeds
4 green cardamom pods
6 whole cloves
1-inch piece of cinnamon stick
½ tsp black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
2 cups milk
1 Tbsp black tea leaves (Assam or Ceylon)
Sugar, brown sugar, or honey

1.  Lightly toast the fennel seeds, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns, and bay leaf in a small dry pan over medium-high heat just until fragrant, about 1 minute.

2.  Crush the spices in a spice mill or with a mortar and pestle. Then transfer the spices t a stainless steel saucepan. Add the ginger and pour int he milk. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 2 minutes. Add the the leaves. Turn off the heat, cover the pot and let steep for at least 5 minutes

3. Strain the chai into warmed cups and sweeten to taste.