Friday, November 8, 2013

Celebration cookies

Happy to report that there's been a lot of reason to celebrate around these parts lately. Halloween: the holy high day of the year. Diwali: the new year. My birthday: only 32, which means I still have a year until my Jesus year. Desmond's half birthday: I have an eighteen month old who laughs, plays games, hides everything I find useful in the house, and finally, FINALLY, calls me Mama. And a new job: a pretty great gig in higher education policy that I'm very excited to start next week.

And, delight of all delights, some of our closest friends from graduate school gathered this past weekend to celebrate the fact that two of our friends are expecting a baby in a few months. This particular mama-to-be introduced me to the evil eye a few years ago, a practically universally understood superstition--one we call dhusta in Marathi--but one that my Turkish friend informed me could be symbolized through a blue glass charm with an eye painted on it to ward off the evil eye that you could catch from someone else’s jealous compliment or envy. 

So when we were going to get together and shower our friends with love this past weekend, I thought it would be fun to make sure there were some evil eyes around. Not because any of our friends would be sending any negative energy their way, but because a superstition for superstition sake is what you do when you wish only positive, wonderful things for your friends. 

And since my glass-blowing skills are rusty, I decided to make some edible eyes. Making a sugar cookie with the right consistency that not only holds up to shape-cutting, but also stays nice and chewy for the shortbread-averse among us has been somewhat of my white whale. And don't even get me started on icing that allowed multi-colored, non-bleeding designs that a layered evil eye requires. But worry no longer! Alton Brown to the rescue. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Furloughed? Eat for free at Z burger!

Well, it happened. The government has shut down, meaning those hacks on the hill were unable to reach an agreement on how to actually fund federal agencies and set spending priorities. One party, let's call them the effing Republicans, is being run by infantile asshats in the House and they've decided to take the American people hostage because they don't like a law that was already democratically passed. An extremist by any other name would smell as sour.

My husband is still at work, not because he was deemed essential (heaven forbid someone working in diplomacy, not just defense, be considered to work in the interests of our national security and be exempt from this shutdown), but because some federal workers have been told that they must continue to work until the money literally runs out. When will that be exactly? Not sure. Yeah, wrap your head around that. 

The silver lining in all of this mess is how the District is responding. Mayor Gray has already said that he will declare all of city services "essential," which is a brilliant and subversive way to keep our city open. But we apparently have $144 million in funds to use for these purposes, which will last only a couple of weeks. After that, who knows what happens. 

And this isn't to say anything about the important services nationwide that are coming to a halt. The Women, Infants and Children program, which helps pregnant women and new moms buy healthy food is being cut off by the Department of Agriculture. Local housing authorities are not going to get additional money for housing vouchers. And we're looking at incredible revenue loss that will hit our economic growth, when we're not still stable in our post-recession recovery. The local economy around the District itself is projected to lose $200 million for EACH DAY that the government is shut down. 

In the midst of all this despair, there are some glimmers of hope coming from the area's eateries. While some restaurants and bars are responding with happy hours to encourage federal employees to spend their precious dollars drinking away their sorrows, others are reaching out to appreciate the workers who are being played like pawns by those aforementioned asshats and help them save their funds. 

Z burger, for instance, is pledging to give free burgers to federal employees daily during the shutdown, from 11am-1pm. If you haven't eaten here, it's the local answer to the Five Guys' craze, and, IMHO, a superior one. Even if you're not furloughed, stop by, patronize the place, and show thanks for an establishment that cares for our public servants. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

If you are a federal employee household, like we are, the potential government shutdown is probably also on your mind. Thanks to a number of children (and not the good kind, but those cavechildren you see in public, climbing furniture, eating paste, and pulling hair out of baby dolls' heads) that some people in this country saw fit to elect as their distinguished representatives, our debt ceiling and the world economy are being held hostage by House Republicans. I can't go on about it because I get all rage-y when I think about their callousness for 1.2 million federal employees' families who, wonder of all wonders, might need something as silly as a paycheck to help them subsist.

Well, stressful times call for relaxing recipes. I'm thinking easy marination, one-pot-dishes, and unattended oven time that also happens to heat your home as the fall chill approaches in the evening. Bonus points for ones that happen to use ingredients you already have in your fridge, since we're talking about saving money after all, and are easily amenable to your fridge's quirky constitution instead of mine. Enter my Asian interpretation of roasted chicken and root vegetables.

Spicy Miso Chicken Thighs

  • 2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs
  • 2 tablespoon garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoon ginger, minced
  • 3 tablespoons miso paste
  • 1 lemon, zested
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon sesame chili oil
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon sambal oelek
  • 1 pound carrots
  • sea salt

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Combine the garlic, ginger, miso, lemon zest, vegetable oil, sesame chili oil, rice vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, and sambal oelek and marinate the chicken thighs in the mixture for at least an hour, but preferably overnight.

Peel the carrots, slice them on the bias, and toss them with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and some sea salt. Spread them out on the bottom of a baking dish and top with the chicken.

Bake for 30 minutes, flipping chicken once halfway through the cooking time. Broiling for 3-4 minutes is optional to brown the thighs. Let the chicken rest for 5 minutes and then serve it up.

If you look really closely, you can see 1.2 million workers giving the bird to the House GOP.

Monday, September 23, 2013

A few years ago, while menu-tasting for our wedding in the DC metro area, I tasted what continues to be my favorite appetizer, hands down: crispy palak (spinach) chaat. I won't mention the name of the Indian restaurant in the Virginia suburbs, despite the wondrousness they caused in my mouth, because they were completely unethical and I want no part in driving business towards their establishment. But once every few months my mind wanders back to that tasting and I find myself involuntarily smacking my lips in memory of the light, crispy, almost airy quality of the starter. It doesn't hurt that the following conversation occurred at the table when the dish was introduced, causing my sister to almost lose her shit on a complete stranger, when it's hard enough to convince her to accompany us to Indian restaurants for exactly this reason:
Manager: And this is our palak chaat.
Me: Does this have any gram flour in it? My sister (sitting across from me) is deathly allergic to it, if so.
Manager: Absolutely no gram flour.
Me: Really? Because it looks like it's been slightly battered in it.
Manager: Nope. No gram flour whatsoever.
Me: (making the rest of the table uncomfortable at this point) Are you absolutely sure? Because my sister will have an awful allergic reaction to this dish if it even has as much as a dusting of besan (gram flour). 
Manager: Oh, there is a LOT of besan in it.
In any case, the dish was delicious but we decided we couldn't reliably serve it at the wedding because we needed practical starters that could withstand delays and crowds. One of the reasons this dish was truly spectacular was because its light crunch necessitated the intimacy of making it "to order"--something that would be difficult at our three hundred person affair.

Once again, my favorite restaurant in the district doesn't disappoint, as it is also famous for the same dish (albeit made differently by flash frying entire leaves of baby spinach instead of the thin ribbons of the leafy green I tasted at The Restaurant That Shall Not Be Named). I haven't actually tasted it at Rasika, however, since I've only been with my sister and I usually try to avoid choosing dishes that will send her into severe anaphylactic shock (see above). But the interwebs are rife with diners who have tasted the starter at Rasika and are haunted months, if not years, later, desperately trying to copycat the recipe in their own kitchens.

Fast forward a few years from the first time I tasted this dish to this past week when I brought a new member of the family into our home. I bought a two pound bag of kale at the store, thinking--hey, I love kale, I haven't really cooked with it much in the past few months, and I always feel like greens cook down into oblivion, so why not go big with the large bag? HAVE YOU EVER SEEN TWO POUNDS OF TIGHTLY PACKED KALE? I seriously think Desmond would take up less room in our fridge. This bag is endless and it does not cook down. I have already made five dishes with it and it looks like I haven't even made a dent. 

Not that I'm complaining--kale is a sought-after superfood and has really been pretty trendy in the U.S. (if not France, as a NYT piece sure to enrage fellow freelancers explained this weekend). I had it at Craft a few months ago, seemingly sauted with onions in nothing but a bit of rice wine and butter. It's hearty and healthy--what's not to love?

As I was staring in wonder at this bag this past weekend, I saw some "tips" (essentially on how to get rid of this ridiculous amount of greens, as though they knew) for helpful ways to use kale. One of them suggested replacing it for any recipe that calls for spinach. [note: this is not true when it comes to raw spinach salads, since raw kale really needs acidity to soften it up--rice wine vinegar or soy works nicely.] 

Spinach! Palak Chaat! As anyone who's made kale chips knows, that delicate, light crunch is pretty easy to obtain with this green. So I set about making my own "palak" chaat for some friends who were coming over for dinner. Owing to the deep fryer incident of 2009, I chose to avoid this horrendous appliance in favor of baking the crispy chaat--just as I would for kale chips.

Crispy "Palak" Chaat

  • five cups of kale, ripped off the stem and ribboned
  • quarter cup gram flour (besan)
  • three tablespoons rice flour
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • sea salt, to taste
  • olive oil 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Massage or spray the kale with olive oil. Spread it out in an even layer on a wire rack over baking sheets, trying to avoid as much overlap as possible. Combine the rest of the ingredients in a sifter and sift over the kale.

Place the sheets in the oven on the lowest rack possible for about 10-12 minutes, stirring a bit once in the middle to ensure that all of the kale crisps evenly. The kale is ready when it is crispy to touch and the light appearance of the flour has mostly disappeared. 

Plate immediately and top with a mixture (to taste) of yoghurt, tamarind paste and pureed roasted garlic. Additional chopped tomatoes, onions and cilantro are optional. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Don't hold your breath for ramen burgers to hit the district

Today I'm sharing a recipe that my sister mastered: the coveted ramen burger, the hipster dish still noticeably absent on the district's food scene, despite having already traveled from its hometown Brooklyn all the way out west to California, and even back again. My sister just moved from the district up to the center of foodie fads, New York City, and since she a) is a broke medical student, b) is a recently self-trained excellent cook, and c) has the eating habits of a six year old you would imagine living in a fraternity house, she immediately decided to make the ramen burger in her own kitchen.

DC gets a bad rap when it comes to food, and while I'll be the first to defend its growing culinary options, it does seem like fads hit us late and stay long enough to die a slow, painful death. Why, for example, are cupcakes still so damn popular? I like them just fine, but perhaps I overdosed because they were ALWAYS around my old office--the end of staff meetings, birthdays, anniversaries... by the end I swear it felt like Mondays and Wednesdays just for the hell of it. And, call me old fashioned, but I'd actually like my mini-cakes to cost less than, well, cakes. 

I digress. Point is, the ramen burger isn't even served up at the district's ramen Mecca, Toki Underground yet. And this is doing nothing to ameliorate the severe foodie insecurity Washingtonians feel towards their northern counterparts. If you don't believe me, just google "Where can I get NY-style pizza in DC?" and get back to me after you spend the next three days wading through the results. [Incidentally, as someone who has scoured through all of the hits more than once, and spent a good deal of time traveling around the city testing the advice out, a gift from me to you: Italian Pizza Kitchen (either their Van Ness or Woodley Park location). Get their thin crust, with extra sauce. It's smaller than a New York slice, but otherwise the basics are there. You're welcome.] 

The ramen burger was originally created by New York's noodle master, Keizo Shimamoto, at Brooklyn's Smorgasburg. This self-described "food flea market" hits two locations on the weekends, DUMBO and Williamsburg, to serve up some great hipster flare. And the burger is no exception. It is made exactly as it sounds--a burger pattie sandwiched between buns made out of ramen. The ramen crisps up to give a nice crunch to the bun on the outside, but allows noodles to stay soft, warm and crumbly on the inside. You can get creative with the seasoning of the buns, burger and sauce, but my sister tried to stay true to Shimamoto's "special sauce." Here's her take on the authentic RB:

The Ramen Burger

makes 6-8 servings

  • 2 packets ramen noodles
  • 1 packet of ramen noodle seasoning packet
  • 1 large egg
  • butter, for searing

Cook two packets worth of ramen noodles in boiling water and then drain all the water. Add only one packet of the chicken flavoring for two packages of noodles, or the buns will be too salty.  Let cool, then add one large egg to noodles and stir to make sure all noodles are coated evenly.  Divide the noodles into 6-8 piles. Add one pile to a ramekin or a bowl, and cover with saran wrap. Use another bowl to flatten into a flat disc, then pop out the ramen disc, cover it fully in saran wrap, and put it in freezer for 20 minutes. Repeat for all 6-8 buns. After 20 minutes, sear ramen buns on a greased pan until golden brown on each side.

  • 2 pounds of ground beef (80/20 fat composition works well to retain moisture in patties, but it's really up to you)
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh garlic
  • 2 tablespoons fresh ginger
  • 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 1 packet of ramen noodle seasoning packet
  • 2 chilies, diced

While the buns are in the freezer, prepare your patties. Combine the ground beef, onion, ginger, garlic, cheese, ramen noodle seasoning packet and chilies. Shape into patties and sear on a stovetop or grill, reserving some drippings if possible. 

  • 1 teaspoon sri racha
  • 1 teaspoon spicy brown mustard
  • 1 teaspoon oyster sauce
  • 1 teaspoon teriyaki sauce
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • some leftover drippings from searing the burgers

Combine sauce ingredients with some of the drippings from searing the burgers and mix well. Adjust sauce ingredients to taste. Layer fresh arugula on the bottom ramen bun, place the burger on top, lather with the sauce, and top with the second bun. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


A few notable things happened this past week. I got sick, I got better, and now I'm sick again. The chef at my favorite restaurant in the district asked to take home some of my burfi from our Ganapati celebrations this weekend (yeah, I'm not even going to pretend that's a humblebrag). And my son stopped calling me Purple. In the midst of all this excitement, I also happened to refine a recipe for kebabs that pleased both full sized and mini members of our family all at once. 


  • 1 pound ground meat of your choice (I used beef)
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 3 cups spinach, packed
  • 1 cup cooked rice
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon garam masala
  • 2 large shallots
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

Preheat the oven at 375 degrees. Saute the spinach and shallots in the oil until the shallots are soft. Add the mixture to the rest of the ingredients and knead well. 

Place a mounded spoonful in a nifty mini-muffin pan, because square kebabs are just so darn cute. 

Pop them in the oven for 30 minutes and enjoy.

Kebabs are a great menu item to have on hand. They're versatile, they can mask all sorts of healthy additions (from vegetables to flax seed), they freeze well, and you can even pop them in some curry if you prefer sauce to the grill. Use them to experiment and experiment often-- you won't be sorry.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Ganapati removing obstacles for women?

India has been on my mind lately. We're right in the middle of one of the biggest festivals of the year: the ten-day Ganapati festival. Millions of Indians across the world will be visiting one another in homes to pay homage to elaborate arrangements surrounding the idol of Ganesh, the god of auspiciousness, the remover of obstacles. Dictated by the lunar calendar, this festival usually hits during monsoons in India, and I remember getting soaked to the bone hopping from one home to the other as we made our way through taking darshan (literally, sight) of relatives and friends' Ganapati. The host would welcome us, give us some prasad (literally, a gracious gift), which was always in the form of a sweet, we'd stay for some pleasantries, and then we'd put our sopping sandals back on and be on our way to the next stop. Morning to evening, for ten days.

We're celebrating out at my folks' place this weekend, and I wanted to bring some sweets to share. I started out with plans to make a couple of different burfis, an Indian equivalent of fudge. I planned on coconut and pistachio, two popular and personal favorites. But the best laid plans... well, let's just say that burfi is a very forgiving dessert. And since India's flag is such a simple triad of colors, it can make for a very nationalistic one as well. 

Coconut and Pistachio Burfi

  • 4-5 cups of unsweetened shredded coconut 
  • 2 14 oz. cans of sweetened condensed milk
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
  • 1 cup shelled pistachios, plus a handful reserved to crush for garnish
  • pat of butter, for greasing the pan

Blanch the shelled pistachios by immersing in boiling water for two minutes; then just rub between your fingers to remove the remaining peels. 

Grind into a paste, using some water if necessary.

In one pot, dry roast the coconut until it is fragrant (do not allow it to become brown). Remove one cup and add to another pot, with the pistachio paste. Add one can of the condensed milk to the coconut-only pot, and stir continuously over medium heat until the mixture begins to incorporate the milk and the coconut becomes clumpy and less sticky. Add the ground cardamom. Remove from heat. Repeat with the coconut-pistachio mixture in the other pot with the second can of condensed milk, sans cardamom. 

Layer the pistachio burfi on the bottom of the greased pan and pack it in tight. 

Next, divide the coconut-only batch into two halves. Now, if you have saffron, you're a better person than I am and you should soak a bit in some warm water and add the essence to one half of the coconut-only mixture until you reach the desired flag-orange color. If you don't, use some food coloring--I won't tell. 

Layer the white mixture on top of the green. 

And top it off with the orange mixture, remembering to pack both layers tightly. Finally, crush some pistachios for garnish and press onto the orange layer. 

Chill this pan in the fridge for at least one hour, then use a greased butter knife to slice.


Why else is India on my mind? The four defendants in the brutal New Delhi gang rape case have been on trial, which ended with a guilty verdict, followed by today's sentencing condemning them to death by hanging. It's difficult to read about the gleeful reactions to the verdict--not because even any small part of me thinks these monsters deserve life, but because these episodes offer relief in the form of temporary moments of vindictive vengeance. They distract from the larger problem of violence against women and the institutional and societal failures that allow women to continue to be vulnerable to such heinous behavior. And, after all, they're unlikely to even die this way. There are 477 people on death row in India, yet only three have been executed in the last nine years, due to an appeals process that can travel up several levels of bureaucracy and a severely backlogged justice system. 

I would like to think that the public outcry in response to this case will not end here, with this symbolic sentence. I would like to think that the bodies that poured into the streets after the brutal rape will continue to band together, to say such violence against women has always been and continues to be one of the fundamental flaws of human societies. I would like to see millions of Indians take to the streets again, saying that this doesn't end with this verdict and sentence.

Millions of Indians in the streets? That's actually not hard. Particularly during Ganapati because the ten days culminate in public processions through the streets that march to the water and immerse their family idols in the sea. Not the most environmentally sound tradition, I know, and I have family members who are starting to refrain from this practice (our NoVa version included), but it does bring millions of Indians out into those streets. 

One of India's greatest freedom fighters, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, actually gave the festival a distinctly political face in the late 1800s. He brought families into the streets for this procession, who until then had celebrated Ganesh in privacy of their homes, and made Ganapati a public vehicle for protest against British colonial reign. 

Wouldn't it be something if millions of Indians took the tenth day this year, next Wednesday the 18th, to march on our behalf and demand that obstacles be removed for the women of India, and, let's face it, the world. That's assuming that you, like me, don't agree that patriarchy is dead.