26 November, 2010

Squash and lentil soup

Our east-west mashup of a basic Indian lentil soup and New-England fall flavors turned out to be a big hit! Since it tasted so good, i thought i'd share...

2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp garlic-ginger paste
2 yellow onions, chopped small-ish
1 medium-sized butternut squash, peeled and cubed
1-2 sweet apples, peeled and chopped
4 c. chicken broth 
4 c. water
cilantro, chopped fine

garam masala
chili powder
cayenne pepper
whole cumin seeds (a sprinkle)

In a soup pot, sautee onions and garlic-ginger paste in melted butter. In a separate saucepan, combine lentils, spices, and half the chicken broth and water. Add about half the sauteed onions to the lentils and cook until lentils are very soft. 

Meanwhile, in the soup pot, combine the squash, apple, and remaining broth and water. Spice as desired; when Trish went wild and we felt  it had gotten a bit too authentically Indian, we poured off part of the cooking liquid and replaced it with water, successfully turning things back down a notch. 

Bring the squash et cetera to a boil, then simmer til tender. Puree in a blender and return to soup pot. Stir in the chopped cilantro - it was about three-quarters cup, i think - but reserve some to add color for presentation, if you like. 

Mash the lentils until most are broken, and add them to the squash puree. This gives the soup an amazing texture. Simmer for twenty minutes or so to let cultures and flavors mingle… and enjoy!

It might seem complicated, but in principle this recipe is a simple question of blending textures and following your taste buds (hence the omission of any measurements for the spices). And don't forget, we took two radically different recipes and found a way to hybridize - more proof that recipes are at best a point of departure.

Thanksgiving, from traditional to transnational

When i was a child, there were a few bits of literature that marked mid-November. I can't really remember how "Cranberry Thanksgiving" goes, but the gist of it - an unconventional group of guests and a special recipe - sticks with me, 

This all started a month ago, when i was talking to Marcus about holiday plans - i was looking for a way to avoid uncomfortable family situations, and he and Trisha couldn't afford the drive to Arkansas to spend Thanksgiving at home. Thus it was that i ended up in Flagstaff with a motley crew of friends old and new. Trisha, who grew up in Delhi, had her first Thanksgiving in Maine four years ago; until last year, my mother had been the central figure of Thanksgiving, and after her passing from cancer i needed to find new meanings for the holiday. 

Wednesday night Marcus, Trisha, and their Estonian friend Kati and i wandered the aisles of the Flagstaff Safeway hunting up the ingredients for our communally planned menu: rum-glazed ham, mashed potatoes, stuffed acorn squash, green salad, jello salad, lentil soup, homemade egg nog, and mulled cider. The supermarket was where it hit home - it's the first time any of us have been in charge of Thanksgiving dinner. For Trisha, her first time as kitchen-master for an American holiday; for me, the first time making the jello salad my mother always made at Thanksgiving. I was worried others would find the dish strange, but Trisha recognized it from her first Thanksgiving dinner four years ago. Gleeful, i put on my best Indian accent: "she should not be allowed near the spice aisle." 

Thus it is Thanksgiving takes on new traditions. While we shopped, Joe and Kara were making jambalaya at home, and with a ton of leftover rice we decided to add rice pudding to the menu alongside Kati's cheesecake. I recalled mom's rice pudding - tasty and classic New England style, yes - but i also recalled the delicate flavors of shir-berenj, an Afghan rice pudding i'd fallen in love with. 

With a quick google search, i was amazed by the variety of rice pudding variations from country to country. Thankfully, Trisha's cabinets contained cardamom and rose-water, two flavors that distinguish shir-berenj, kheer, and other Middle Eastern variations. From there, it was a simple matter of adaptation - slipping the flavors into a "leftover rice" pudding recipe. 

After the collaborative meals we'd made back in college, it was a treat to be cooking together once again, and fold a couple new friends into the blend. All six of us took turns in the tiny apartment kitchen, chopping, heating, tasting, improvising, washing dishes, pausing for tortilla chips with homemade guacamole - and making another batch of guacamole when we ran out. Kara chopped apples, onions, and mushrooms, and sauteed them with chicken sausage, bread crumbs, and leftover rice to stuff the acorn squash (out of this world!). Marcus took the helm on his grandmother's egg nog recipe; Joe crafted a delicious green salad with dried cranberries, walnuts, rice vinegar, and the radishes Trisha wanted to use up. By six we had a beautiful spread; by eight we had decided we would never eat again. And then, as we sat sated around the table, we took turns saying what we were each thankful for. 

Too many things to list. 

25 November, 2010

Flagstaff explorations

text coming soon?

To (northern) Arizona!

Westward ho! And with a glint in the sunlight, the wing of this plane shaves through the sky. Beyond its upturned tip my sleep-clotted eyes take in low mountain ranges skirting a desert city.

In the airport, i see people dressed for warmth. Should i be wearing shorts instead of wool and an insulated jacket? I grudgingly remember i'm headed to Flagstaff. Kara and Joe pick me up in her new truck, and we hit the road. A week since they arrived from Anchorage, they've been in the city too long.

We climb up, past cactus-strewn sand, north through rain to hail, fog, and snow. Soon it's icy; cars have slid off the road all around us. We await a warm reunion among the snowy pines.

D.C. i didn't see

Where were we? Oh, yeah. I stepped off the plane in Dulles with only a laptop and half a plan. Thankfully, my friend Efe replied within minutes. Despite having four overdue papers on his agenda, he offered couch space for the night.

On the way, i figured i'd check out a little of the District - after all, having lived in Ankara and visited Tbilisi, Reykjavik, and Copenhagen it made sense to get a taste of my own nation's capital. The problem is that Dulles is a long way from the capital. It was after eleven when i got off the metro, and exhausted and hungry decided to forego the usual sights in favor of a neighborhood where i knew i'd find restaurants - Chinatown.

L'Enfant Plaza metro station

Thus it is that i have only fleeting impressions of Washington D.C., impressions not of grand monuments or museums but of the flavor of city life. It struck me as a coldly concrete town, where like New York the public architecture - of subways and such - made the individual feel small and perhaps even oppressed by its cavernous spaces. "Gaurdian Angel" security volunteers roamed the subways, and i found myself connecting with "1984" in rather disturbing ways. When, after midnight, i caught up with Efe and his roommate, they told me my impressions weren't far from daily reality. People here are overscheduled and impersonal, they said, agreeing with my observations that D.C. has none of the panache of New York to temper impersonal bustle; suggesting that corporate and government IDs were worn as status symbols. Yeah, i got clearance.

The oddest of threads in a traveler's life are the people you can count on meeting in a different city every time. I'd met Efe in Boston; we met a second time over coffee in Istanbul. This time he had a bottle of sweet-tea-flavored vodka, which he found disgusting, and which we proceeded to drain. It was a treat to reconnect with Turkish culture through his company, until i dizzily climbed into a cab around 5 AM. The driver, a fellow from Tunisia, was listening to recited suras - and thus we launched into a discussion of Islam and its role in history and dispersal around the globe.

As i waited in the terminal at Reagan airport, my face was falling into breakfast. I sleepwalked onto the plane and discovered that there's a perk to getting the wing seat. With two empty seats beside mine, i lay across all three; Phoenix was just a nap away.