Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Fall Pantry: Roasting, toasting and pasting

Indian food. By far my favorite. Raghavan Iyer, my Indian cooking mentor. I meet Raghavan a few years ago when I took my first Indian cooking class. I was so undone I asked him to host my 50th birthday party, a cooking class for 10 in my own kitchen. We were spellbound as Raghavan moved through the kitchen showing us how to make a few classic Indian dishes and then spun tales from India and read from his book The Turmeric Trail, a poignant story of his grandmother's awakening. His cookbooks are pieces of art and literature as far as I am concerned. Perhaps my favorite part of each book is the chapter dedicated to the tutorial of spices and endless recipes for rubs, pastes and spice blends. I have learned so much about spices from Raghavan. Always purchase spices in small amounts, get them in their whole form when ever possible, store them in air tight containers away from light and heat. I have learned that each spice renders a plethora of flavor depending on what you do with it. You get a completely different flavor from grinding, roasting, toasting and using it whole. I love spending a day mixing small batches of Ragavan's blends together to have on hand for impromptu Indian cooking. Madras Curry Masala Punjabi Garam Masala, Sambhar Masala, Panch Phoron, Tangy Sambhar Masala, Toasted Ground Cumin Blend, the list is endless. Perhaps my favorite however are the pastes I can throw together and freeze in ice cube trays to have on hand, Garlic, Ginger, Fried onion Paste and Red Chili Vinegar Paste. When I need fresh grated ginger I always seem to get way too much. Making a paste out of what I don't use is a great way to use the left over ginger before it goes bad.

Ragavan's Ginger Paste

8 ounces coarsely chopped fresh ginger (Raghavan says you don't need to peel it but I do)
Pour 1/4 to 1/2 cup water into a blender jar, add the ginger. Puree, scraping the inside of the jar as needed until it forms a smooth, light brown paste. Store in a tightly sealed container in the fridge for one week. I like to put 1 tablespoon portions in ice cube trays and freeze. Once they are frozen pop them out and transfer to a freezer bag.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Fall Pantry

I love the end of August and September, shorter days, crisp cool mornings and evenings, the changing color of the leaves. But most of all I love the activities of setting up my fall pantry. The harvest season. I must have been a pioneer or a farmer in my previous life, working the land to make my home and feed my family.

I am wired to wake up at the crack of dawn, even before then on most days. Heading out in the dark early morning to the farmers market to gather my tomatoes, green beans, corn, and basil

I have a fall routine, a ritual if you will of getting our pantry ready for the fall so that all it takes is cracking open a can of roasted tomatoes, opening a bag of fresh corn off the cob, slathering in the pesto, tossing in a can of my own garbanzo, black or pinto beans, adding some roasted red pepper, a dollop of homemade apple sauce, rubbing a roast in my own spice blend. I can, I roast, I toast, and I freeze. I love it

If you were to visit in the cold dark months of December or January you would have a sensory experience and a meal you would never forget. I am likely to make authentic Hungarian Guly├ís with my canned fire roasted red peppers, shrimp tossed with pesto, smoked pork butt rubbed with my own Latin spice rub with real black beans and caramelized onions, roasted tomato soup or a cheddar corn chowder, a sandwich on sourdough with homemade pesto, homemade mayo layered with roasted chicken and gouda. And if you liked Indian food you would experience the aroma of complex toasted spice blends that are made in small batches just so they stay fresh. You probably wouldn’t even notice that you were eating gluten-free

It is a major undertaking and consumes my every waking moment for nearly 6 weeks and I have not even mentioned the honey harvest that we hope for every year. It is the only time of year you are likely to find me awake past 10. I occasionally have a gluten-free pizza delivered if the canner is running late into the evening. I pop over to the Minnesota State Fair for safely fried French fries in between canning runs. There is plenty of coffee, fresh squeezed lemonade and tonic water to carry me through the days.

Thabo Lama would have loved these days, so much to do in the kitchen, so much to smell and test. I think he would have been particularly partial to husking 100 ears of corn and removing the kernels from the cob. I miss him dearly but it seems he rubbed off on Ziva Jane. We are only into day two but so far she seems to be keeping her ear to the rattle of the pressure canner and checking it all out. She is easily distracted however and likes to screw up my small kitchen T.V., pressing buttons in such a manner that getting the signal and CNN back is a frustrating undertaking. I am grateful for her company even if she is a little trouble.

My go-to pesto recipe is easy and freezes well. I tried many variations and suggest you do to. Personally I like toasted pine nut but you can use any kind of nut. Regardless of what you choose, toasting is worth the effort. You can back off on the garlic or hold back on the pepper. I freeze small portions in various sized airtight containers and even use ice cube trays for really small portions. I do cover the top with a thin film of olive oil and plastic wrap

4 cups fresh basil, tightly packed

½ cup toasted pine nuts, cooled completely

5 cloves of garlic, minced

2/3 cup freshly grated parm

1-teaspoon salt

1-teaspoon pepper

1/3-cup good olive oil

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade puree the toasted nuts and garlic. Add the basil, salt and pepper and puree for about 30 seconds after the basil has become incorporated. Slowly add the olive oil and then add the cheese, mixing together.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Thabo Lama and His Special Human

’In the short walk of this life
We have had our share of joy.
Let us hope to meet again
In the youth of our next life’

Tsangyang Gyatso

Sixth Dalia Lama

It started out as an endeavor to boost Tina's spirits after her Sophie died this past Christmas day. Two kittens, Ziva Jane and Thabo Lama, litter mates. They were born on October 24th and joined our family in January. It turned into a kitten, Thabo Lama becoming something to me that I never imagined possible. Tina says I was Thabo's special human, and it is true. I became his special human in no short order.

Perhaps it was the time of year, cold, dark and lots of snow that helped the two us hunker down and forge this special relationship. Perhaps I was finally ready. I don't know. All I know is that I loved him dearly and he filled my days with joy. I love Ziva Jane too but she took to Tina like white on rice. We spent hours in the kitchen and every evening after TIna came home from work the four of us played and cuddled in bed. Tina would put them in their room every night around midnight and I would get them up at 5:00 am. We had long days filled with endless fun. I am grateful to have so many wonderful memories and photos of him and while this one is perhaps not the best, it does portray his character and his enthusiasm for human food. I have written about this little personality of his many times but here he is standing guard of the turkey I roasted. He kept this position for the better part of 6 hours staring at the oven while the turkey roasted and then watching it cool for at least 3 hours, without moving!

I always knew there was something not right about Thabo Lama. I couldn't quite put my finger on it but it went beyond his crazy clamoring for people food and his relentless medical problems that took us to the vet week after week after week. He stayed kitten like for way too long, both physically and developmentally. But it didn't matter, I was completely attached to him just as he was.

Thabo Lama was liberated to his rebirth during the early hours of this morning. I received some unforeseen Karma just before his passing. I spent Sunday evening surrounded by my Tibetan American friends at an event for The Venerable Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan Monk and freedom fighter who spent over 33 years tortured in chinese prison camps. It is only because I saw my friend Nancy that I was able to give Thabo Lama a fitting send off to his new life. Nancy reminded me that I had some Mani Pills which I had received directly from His Holiness The Dalai Lama. She told me I could use them for an easy, swift and auspicious rebirth and good health in his next life. It wasn't easy, but I felt so much better after giving Thabo Lama the Mani Pill and reciting Om Mani Padme Hum. I will be forever grateful for my connection with Nancy the night before Thabo Lama was liberated.

I am grateful too for my loving wife and partner who empowered me in my new found connection to this kitten. We would have never gotten these two kittens were it not for her. Patrick and Trudy, you will never know how much your support has meant to me in the past week. I am imbued with your kindness. So many others that have buoyed me this past week, Sherri, Helen, Kristen. . . And Paula for being with me this morning to help me tend to the logistics of Thabo's death.

We have donated Thabo to Dr. Greene and the University of Minnesota in the hope that he may help them better understand the rare condition of Feline Pituitary Dwarfism. In part because Tina and I are both academics, while Tina is the only practicing academic in our home I have been on the faculty of several colleges in the Twin Cities over the years, teaching nursing. We both value education and research and hope that Thabo Lama can further that endeavor.

We had a great team of people behind us, our breeder Lauri who never left our side and has extended herself way beyond reason, the folks at Grand Ave Vet who loved this little guy as well and especially Dr. Joe Greene, from the University of Minnesota, who was able to diagnose Thabo Lama in a matter of moments and guided us through the last two weeks of his life.

All of you are the best I am grateful to have you in my life and on our team, even if only for a moment.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I just want my kitchen cat back

Little Thabo Lama, I don't know exactly how he did it but this little guy got inside me, wicked deep inside and I am overcome with despair about him these days.

When he first arrived Thabo was full of spunk and had complete and utter enthusiasm for the kitchen. The two of us started logging hour after hour in the kitchen. He followed me from stove to fridge to counter, wherever I went, he followed. He was underfoot and in my business all my waking hours. I guess this is how I became his special human as Tina likes to say. Thabo sat on the counter watching my every move in the kitchen. He loved watching me cut vegetables, mix things in the vitamix, pop toast in the toaster. You name it, if it happened in the kitchen he was in. He seemed completely consumed with all things food, especially our food. It was a challenge from the start to get him to eat cat food. Thabo pulled popcorn right out of Tina's mouth, he monitored a turkey I was roasting for the better part of 9 hours, he dragged pizza off our plates, broke into a Tupperware of chocolate chip cookies, cracked open a carry out container with chocolate cake, tore through a bag of bread, the list goes on. This little guy was crazy for people food.

But Thabo hasn't been healthy from the get go, struggling with one health care issue after another and had what I would call failure to thrive. He just couldn't gain weight and in the past two months he has lost a full pound. Now that may not sound like much but when it is a quarter of your total body weight the mathematician would say it is significant. He started eating fabric, lost his interest in our food and stopped eating all together three weeks ago. He is sluggish, mentally dull and fading away. We are usually at the vet several times a week but starting three weeks ago we have been to our vet or the University of Minnesota Vet Center almost every other day. About 10 days ago he had a metabolic crisis and was hospitalized at the University. Looking back it was the best thing that could have happened, getting plugged into the University has taken us on a path of action that we just couldn't get at our own vet.

On Monday Thabo was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, a condition I also have. Finally an answer and some medication. Still, I am guarded. I know it will take some time for the medication to kick in and for his thyroid to get in gear but in the mean time he continues to loose weight every day. I am trying my level best to syringe feed him, something neither of us like. I wait for some sign that he is coming back but so far nothing. The mental dullness is overwhelming. I just want to wake up and find him clamoring for something we are eating, clamoring for his diced chicken I roasted every day for him, eating something, anything on his own.

I just want to wake up and find my kitchen cat back in the kitchen with me!