Banana Fanna Fo Fanana

Dear Readers,

I have not written in this blog for more than a year.  At some point, the demands of work and family somehow superseded the ability to carve to out the time for a food journal.  I’ve been cooking – but I haven’t been cataloging in the way that once characterized how I approached cooking.  Life has simply been more rushed lately.  But the memories and the meals are with us still.  Although I may not be writing as frequently as I once did, you will still find me here from time to time.  For those of you who continue to find me and visit, thank you.  I would love to hear from you.

These days, we are a banana family.  L is still eating “na-na” for breakfast every morning, but now she can say the word banana, and has mastered The Name Game song too.   Occasionally, our family will eat 2-3 bananas a day, which makes us think that buying bananas in bulk is a good idea.  But then we will hit a banana lull and are caught unawares:  suddenly, the bananas are speckled with black and everyone has lost interest.

My newfound interest in banana bread is propelled by a desire to bake at least one thing well, and by my inability to waste what was yesterday a perfectly good piece of fruit.  I finally have made margin notes in the recipe book.  And, I have made it several times.  And I have gotten it right, more than once!  It helps that L loves banana bread.  It helps too that she makes it with me now, and mashes the banana with a fork and stirs the batter too.

The recipe is adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything

Banana Bread

Makes one loaf


8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, plus a little extra to grease the pan

1 ¼ cups (about 7 ounces) all-purpose flour

½ cup whole wheat flour (1/4 cup unsifted)

1 teaspoon salt (reduce salt by half if using salted butter)

½ tsp baking soda

1 ½ tsp baking powder

¾ cup sugar

2 eggs

4 very ripe bananas, mashed with a fork until smooth

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans

½ cup grated dried unsweetened coconut.

A few notes:  The coconut makes this dish all bells and whistles.  Otherwise, it’s just a banana bread.  Really.  You can use up to 5 bananas; otherwise, the batter is a little too dry.  A trick to adding moisture: freeze the bananas.  When the bananas thaw, they release their juices, which are concentrated and extremely flavorful.  I also add a little cinnamon, because I think it makes just about everything taste better.  Happy Baking!

Step One

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Grease a 9 x 5 baking dish with butter and a light dusting of flour.  Set aside

Step Two

Mix together the dry ingredients.

Step Three

Make sure the butter is at room temperature and soft.  In a separate bowl, cream together the butter and sugar.

Step Four

Mash bananas with glee and abandon.  Stir in the nuts, vanilla, and coconut.  Add this mixture to the butter and sugar and stir to combine.

Step Five

Stir the wet mixture into the dry ingredients and fold gently, using a fork or a rubber spatula.  DO NOT OVERMIX AND DO NOT BEAT, otherwise, the crumb structure will be hard and your banana bread will make an attractive doorstop.


Pour the batter into a loaf pan and bake for 45-60 minutes, until gorgeous and browned.  A toothpick comes out fairly clean, but the banana bread will be pretty moist.  When cooled, serve with ice cold milk.  Sing “banana fanna fo fanana me mi mo manana” at the top of your lungs.



Posted in Dessert, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

30 Minutes or Less

I blame the pesto.  Yes, we are growing basil again this year, and no, I am not making pesto.  Too busy.  But my husband loves pesto, which you may have inferred if you read last summer’s post about making pesto.

Perhaps, in a moment of longing (and delirium) about the absence of pesto, he went to our local warehouse club, i.e. to Costco, and bought a tub of it.  Now we have mucho pesto.  It has been hogging up space in the fridge, and I have been glaring at it.  He keeps saying that “we” should freeze it, which means that it is still hanging out in the fridge, all smug and chill and enormous.

But I was inspired the other day and bought some ricotta cheese to mellow out the pesto, which seemed a little intense for a toddler.  Our little girl eats a lot of pasta, and consequently, we eat a lot of pasta too.  I made the following dish and it has been a huge success at our house.  So huge that I have made it three times in the last six weeks.


One pound of pasta that you like.  One-half pound of ricotta cheese.  A few handfuls of fresh baby spinach.  About a cup of pesto.  A little garlic.  Salt.  A generous amount of olive oil.

How To

Add oil to the pan.  Sauté one clove of minced garlic, add ricotta cheese and season with salt and pepper. Add pesto, cooked pasta and the fresh spinach. Stir to combine and check seasoning.  Done in 30 minutes or less.

Shown below with sauteed zucchini.

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Like Stars

The Internet tells me there are more than 40,000 varieties of rice, which seems entirely plausible, a reasonable number.  It might have been much higher, given that for some three billion people, rice is part of the every day, rice is elemental.

Once upon a trip to India, I remember going to a local Kolkata market in the early evening.   We are visiting the neighborhood purveyor of high quality and specialty rice.  He is trusted by my family to sell unadulterated basmati rice, rice that is free of rot or bugs, uncontaminated by the cheap or barely edible.  A table is placed squarely in the middle of his shop, which is large, a three sided room  that is perhaps 12 x 12.  The shop owner sits on the top of this table, his haunches in a deep squat.   Crammed into every available space are bags and bags of rice – tall, rough burlap bags that resemble fat barrels, a gathering of still, corpulent sentinels patiently waiting with their mouths open wide.  Each bag contains a different kind of rice.

Darkness has set in, but the light inside the stall gives the rice an unexpected incandescence, and the room is awash in circles of yellow and gold, creamy beige and light browns, pale pearl and improbable pink.  My mother and aunts are buying rice for the every day and for the occasions to come.  They barter back and forth with the shopkeeper, and their negotiating disappears into the broader noise of the street.  I am somehow mesmerized by these tiny grains, each with their own smell, texture and personality, trillions of grains for billions of people.  Like sand.  Like stars.  I am momentarily stunned and want to pick up fistfuls of rice from each bag and let the grains run through my fingers.  I want to touch them all.

Bengali Mishti Pulao

That evening, my aunts  purchased basmati rice for Bengali Mishti Pulao.  Basmati rice (Bengali: বাসমতী ) is popular these days, and is available pretty much anywhere, (even Target).  But not all basmati is created equal.  Look for rice that is long and slender, and grain that smells of grass and yesterday’s flowers.  When cooked, Basmati is a fragrant revelation, with notes of  spice and jasmine.

Basmati is usually reserved for special occasions, and if one can make mishti pulao well, then one can leave an imprint.  Bengali mishti pulao pays tribute to the Bengali temperament, and those who love mishti pulao do so ardently.

I recently found a very good basmati that  does not break too easily and cooks into feathery perfection.  The rice came in a large burlap bag, and before I put it away, I let it run through my fingers.


1 cup basmati rice

2 cups water

3-5 cardamom pods, lightly smashed

3-4 whole cloves

1-2 tej pata, optional (bay leaves are not a good substitute)

2 inches of cinnamon stick, broken into pieces

½ cup cashews

½ cup golden raisins

¼ cup slivered or sliced almonds, toasted

2-3 tbsp ghee or butter

Salt to taste

2 tsp sugar (or double the amount of salt)

Step One:

Rinse basmati and drain water.  Set aside.

Step Two:

Dry toast the almonds, shaking gently in a pan, about 8 minutes.  Set aside.

Step Three:

Melt ghee in a saucepan, add cardamom, cinnamon stick, cloves and tej leaf until fragrant, about one minute.  Add cashews and raisins and cook gently for a few minutes.  Add rice, salt and sugar, stirring gently to coat.  Fry the raw rice for a few additional  minutes, then add water.  Turn heat to medium-high.  When mixture reaches a low boil, cover and turn the heat down to a low simmer.  Set timer for 15 minutes.   When the rice is done, stir in the toasted almonds.

Step Four:

Close your eyes.  Inhale deeply.

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Opposites Attract

I realize I haven’t posted any Bengali recipes in awhile.  I’ve been cooking Bengali food – but it hasn’t been all that pretty, especially when I am rushing around and getting ready to serve dinner by a certain hour so that L can eat with us (after which, she is covered with food and must go right into her bath).   Last week was a little more forgiving than the others, and I found slender, darkish green beans at the produce market.  Soft to the touch, they were coated with a hint of fuzz that always reminds me of the beans my father grew in our garden.  How could I resist? 

The grated coconut seemed surprised at first, would sharp mustard be a good match?  The mustard had heard about sweet coconut and worried about managing its reputation.  When they met, the coconut was surprisingly self-assured and mollified the mustard.  In turn, the mustard showed us its sensitive side, and empowered the coconut to show off, all charm and vivacious sweetness.  Ginger added finesse and said, “opposites attract, you know.”   

For those accustomed to mustard and coconut in a dish, the combination hardly seems opposite.  Rather, it is an extremely popular way to serve a wide variety of vegetables and fish,  and it is as common to Bengali cooking as mustard and ketchup are to American dishes.    

Preparing fresh mustard is a little work but can be done in advance.  European and Chinese mustards are not a good substitute.  A  mini blender is necessary.

Beans with Coconut and Mustard or Beans with Narkel and Shorshe


 3-5 tbsp vegetable oil (or mustard oil)

½ tsp fennel seeds

1 tej lef (Optional.  Do not substitute bay leaf.)

1 pound green beans, cut into 1-2 inch pieces

½ cup whole brown mustard seeds

Enough water to cover mustard in a blender

1 cup grated coconut

2-4 tbsp water to grate in blender

1 green chili, split in half

1 inch ginger root, very finely grated

½ tsp turmeric

Salt to taste

Sugar to balance 

1.  Blend mustard.  Set aside.  For instructions on how to blend mustard, please visit the section on Basic Mustard Sauce in the Departures post.

2.  Blend grated coconut with a little water and the grated ginger until the coconut becomes a little more creamy and uniform.

3.  Prepare the phoron (oil and seed) mixture:  In a large saucepan, heat the oil until it shimmers and then add the fennel seeds, green chili and tej leaf.  When the fennel seeds begins to darken slightly (about 2 minutes), add green beans.    

4.  Cook green beans until al dente, then add 2 tbsp mustard and 4 tbsp coconut, turmeric and salt.  The amount of coconut and mustard can vary, depending on taste, but the ratio of coconut to mustard is 2:1 (double the amount of coconut to mustard).  Add a pinch or two of sugar to balance.  Cook another 5 minutes, or until beans are done and slathered with bits of chunky spiced coconut.

Posted in Bengali Food, Coconut, Green Beans, Mustard, Vegetables | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Spring Chickens Revisited

About a year ago, I posted an entry about a green apple chicken salad.  I am partial to chicken salad, and even more partial to apples in a chicken salad.  With a bit of tart and a bite of sweet, a crunchy apple offers just the right complement to the celery and cranberries which accompany it. 

Chicken salad was on my menu for an afternoon baby shower last December, but the green apple version had already made repeat appearances for the women invited.  I was searching for something a little different. 

A cookbook provided the germ of an idea – sesame oil and red bell peppers — and California did the rest.  Apples were no longer in season, but piled high at the outdoor produce markets was the Asian apple-pear or Asian pear, also called nashpati in Bengali (নাশপাতি).  

It hides underneath a modest ochre skin, but the Asian pear is part of the sisterhood of personality. It lacks no shortage of charisma or scrumptiousness.  And it has long been a favorite of my mom’s, who introduced it to us when we were children, and to this day, she delights in the discovery of a perfectly crisp, perfectly juicy nashpati.    

Now I must revise a bit.  I am still partial to apples in my chicken salad.  But perhaps I am just a teensy weensy bit more partial to the singular pear, quietly camouflaged as an apple. 

This variation of chicken salad is less sweet and more savory than its green apple cousin, although the  Asian pears I bought in California were intensely sweet.   The crunch (and color) mimicked water chestnuts, but the flavor surprised people, which was a nice touch.   For a sweeter chicken salad, omit the red bell pepper and substitute dried apricots cut into a small dice.  Add a little honey to taste. 

For everyone who has asked, I am very belatedly posting the recipe for the chicken salad I made at R’s baby shower.         

 Asian Pear Chicken Salad or Nashpati Chicken Salad

  • 6 cups cooked and shredded chicken (roasting the chicken work best)
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 large fistful of pea pods, sliced into  ¼-inch diagonals
  • 1 ½-2 cups peeled and diced Asian pear, small 1/4 –inch cubes
  • 1 tbsp sesame oil
  • 1-2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
  • 3 tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tsp sugar – more or less to balance
  • Salt to taste
  • white pepper to taste
  • ½  cup plain yogurt
  • ½ cup sour cream
  1. Sauté pea pods briefly, about 2 minutes, to remove any raw, grassy taste.  Set aside and cool.
  2. In a large bowl, combine sesame oil, olive oil, vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, yogurt, sour cream, salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly to combine.
  3. Add chicken,  Asian pear, bell pepper and pea pods to the dressing.  Stir convincingly until everything is coated with everything else.  Put into fridge and chill for at least an hour.
  4. Serve to guests with fruit and bread, or, sit in front of the television with a fork and a glass of white wine and do not share with anyone.

Posted in Asian Pear, Bell Peppers, Chicken, Poultry, Salads | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments


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After a few days of cooking, the fridge is full of this and that.  I play a game of “I Spy” with the fridge and reclaim Sunday’s pork roast, excavate mushrooms from the crisper drawer, and hope the red bell, which is old but not forgotten, still offers sweetness and summer crunch.

But first I rummage around for the rice.  There is almost always a little extra rice after every meal.  It reassures us that we have more than enough, and we do not throw it out, but into the fridge it goes until needed again.  Overnight, the soft pale grains become chewy, the starch coagulates around the edges and the rice is now at its best for a more glamorous makeover: fried rice.  Fried rice is everything and anything I ever want it to be.  Salty, chewy little bits of rice accompanied by spicy meats,  brightened by slightly sweet and crunchy vegetables.  A little garlic, ginger and soy sauce are important, but the rest is all imagination, and in this case, my leftovers.

Pork and Mushroom Fried Rice

A few notes about fried rice.  The rice must be cold and old.  Freshly cooked rice is too sticky and does not “fry” properly.  It instead becomes a glutinous, gooey mush.

I prefer to use leftover meat that was part of another dish, which is typically roast chicken or roast pork.  When making shrimp fried rice, I use raw shrimp, which I season and cook until just pink and then set aside.


2 cups raw long grain white rice, cooked 24 hours in advance and refrigerated.  Rice must be refrigerator-cold.  Two cups raw rice makes approximately 6 cups of cooked rice.

2 cups diced cooked pork (or chicken, beef, shrimp, tofu)

1 red bell pepper, diced

6-8 oz. chopped mushrooms, about 3 cups diced

1 cup shelled edamame (substitute green peas if edamame are not available)

2 eggs

1 medium onion, small dice

2-3 cloves garlic, finely minced

1 inch piece ginger root, grated

6 tablespoons soy or tamari

2 tbsp toasted sesame oil

3-4 tbsp canola or peanut oil

1 cup pea pods, sliced into thin diagonal strips

Chili pepper flakes or cayenne pepper to taste

Salt to taste

Sugar for balance

Step One:

Beat the two eggs as if making an omelette.  Season with salt and a little sugar.  Scramble.  Set aside.

Step Two:

Heat 1 tbsp sesame oil and the canola oil in a wok or wok-like frying pan until shimmering and very hot.  This is a high heat dish, which requires one’s undivided attention.  Add garlic, onion, mushrooms and sauté until mushrooms have cooked.   Stir gently but constantly during cooking, otherwise the ingredients will burn.  Add ginger, chili pepper, red bell pepper, edamame, and cook until just heated through.  Season with salt and pepper and a sprinkle of sugar.

Step Three:

Add cold rice, which will be clumpy and difficult to separate.  Working quickly and using a potato masher, break up the rice and fold to incorporate all ingredients.  Add remaining tablespoon sesame oil and soy sauce.  Taste, and adjust seasoning if needed.  Add a little oil too, if rice is too sticky.

Step Four:

Wipe sweat from brow.  Add scrambled egg and pea pods and create high heat pandemonium in the wok.  Be fierce.  Wield the wooden spatula and fling and flip and fry.   About 2 minutes.  The pea pods should still have their crunch when the dish is done.

Served with store bought pot stickers, which I pan fried.  My version of fried rice did not include pea pods, but I highly recommend them.

Posted in Grains, Pork, Rice | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Big Blue

I have always been fascinated by the pot roast, or more appropriately, by the idea of a pot roast.  Growing up, it was a Sunday dinner staple for a number of my friends, but for me it was a marvelous and unknowable mystery.  I remained captivated by the pot roast, for it was on television and in the magazines at the doctor’s office, and fell under the rubric of “things we did not eat.”  I was solidly into adulthood before realizing that the pot roast was not an actual cut of meat but referred to the vessel in which the meat was cooked.   And because the pot roast is seldom served at dinner parties, the very first pot roast I ate was one that I made.

I do not make it often, but in homage to The Pot, I make it occasionally (i.e. annually).  Several years ago, we received a pot that made our other pots seem dainty.  It is our Le Creuset Enameled Cast-Iron Round French Oven, a pot that has 8 mighty words in its official name.  It is a 9-quart, 16-pound behemoth, and we feel great pride for our  cooking colossus, which is frequently hauled  out for parties and holidays, for  jambalaya, stuffing and mushroom soup.  This pot is so special that it even has a name and a closing couplet:  There is little my big pot cannot do.  And in affection and in deference, we have named her Big Blue.

Basic Pot Roast

I recently followed a Cook’s Illustrated recipe for pot roast.  It turned out beautifully on the first try, and the oven is indeed key.  The oven braise produces a texture far superior to that of the stovetop braise.  The recipe hails from the Special Collector’s Edition All-Time Best Recipes of the magazine and is titled “How to Cook Pot Roast,” for those of us who did not know.  It is a popular recipe, with legions of fans and various versions of it can be found of the Web, courtesy of Google.  A variation of it is below.


1 boneless chuck eye roast, about 3 pounds

Vegetable oil

1 medium onion, diced

1 carrot, diced

1-2 ribs celery, diced

2 gloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons sugar

1 cup chicken broth

1 cup beef broth

Thyme, Bay leaf

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1-1 ½ cups water

What I did:

Thoroughly seasoned meat with salt and pepper.  Browned the roast well in Big Blue, until all sides boasted a deep rich brown crust.  Removed from Big Blue and set aside.  Added the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, sugar, thyme and bay leaf to The Pot, which self-deglazed as the mirepoix cooked and released water.  I added a splash of  beef  broth to assist in the deglazing process.  I also added a tablespoon of tomato paste, a teaspoon of paprika, and some cayenne pepper, because I can’t seem to cook meat without it.  The roast went back into Big Blue, as did the remaining broth and water.  When the whole happy mess reached a simmer, it went into a 300 degree oven, tightly covered with a large piece of foil, followed by the lid.

(In Big Blue, the lid alone is massive.   The foil seemed superfluous – could anything really escape from beneath that lid?— but the recipe called for it and I followed instructions.)

The roast cooked for 3 1/2 to 4 hours.  I turned it every 30 minutes as directed.  When it was nearly fork tender, I added potatoes with a sprinkle of salt and back into the oven it went for another 30 minutes or so.  When the pot roast was finished the whole dish was meltingly soft, save the potatoes, which were exactly the right texture.

A variation of this recipe may be found at:

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Just Guess

It started with a birthday dinner for a vegetarian guest of honor.  The weather has been topsy turvy and a slight nudge of chill and wet revived my longing for soup.  I settled on a variation of vichyssoise but wanted the onion flavor to be less dominant and substituted a vegetable.  Somehow, the vegetable became the soup itself.  The potato never made an appearance.  I was so surprised by the outcome that  I wanted my guests to have a similar experience.

The soup was ladled into bowls.  It was green and slightly sweet and creamy.  I said it was a surprise.  Spoons obeyed and mouths smiled and nobody asked what it was.  Eventually I asked my diners to guess, “So, what is it?”  They offered:  Peas?  No.  Asparagus?  No.  Not beans.  Not broccoli.  A secret green soup. 

I served it again at my sister’s house in California but this time the guests knew what it was, and again, the reaction after the big reveal was similar.  “It surprises you!” but in a good way.  It’s complex and velvety and supremely, mouth-wateringly delicious.  Although we felt a little sheepish heaping praise on the watery and slightly bland zucchini, we had to give credit where credit was due. 

The soup is made with zucchini, a bit of onion and some fennel seed.  Vegetable broth keeps it vegan but chicken broth can be used as well.  It doesn’t taste the way we expect zucchini to taste.  When sautéed  slowly, the zucchini, fennel and onion undergo a kind of transformation.  The onion bolsters the zucchini, adding sweetness and savory heft.  The fennel adds a kind of brightness, a taste of spring in the midst of autumn.   A blender is required.  Here’s how it’s done:

Zucchini Soup

Several tablespoons good quality olive oil

1 tsp whole fennel seed.

½ teaspoon dry-toasted fennel seed, finely ground.

1 cup finely diced onion

3 smallish zucchini, each about 8-9  inches long.  Grated or cut into a small dice

Vegetable broth, 3-5 cups

In a heavy-bottomed skillet, heat the oil until warm and add whole fennel seeds and onion.  Sauté over low heat, until onion is soft and nearly transparent.  Add the grated zucchini and cook over medium to low heat until zucchini is completely cooked through, and small bits are slightly caramelized.  This process may take a little while.  Season as needed.  Add ground fennel seeds at the very end.

Allow to cool and add broth in one cup to half cup increments, until soup is desired consistency.   

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Warming Up

I didn’t make kima for years.  To be truthful, I didn’t make it at all.  Ever.  The thinking went . . . who needs to make some Indian variation of ground meat hash when there’s so much other stuff to cook?  I ignored the kima completely but little did I realize that others were making kima, making it well, and creating converts right underneath my nose.  Which is how I came to be blindsided by the question, “How come you never make kima?  It’s really delicious!”  Everyone in the room agreed that kima was delicious.  My sister said thank you and smiled the modest smile of turncoat masquerading as chef par excellence.  And then everyone in the room said, “You never make kima?  Really?”

Thus began my slow perhaps reluctant transformation.  Because it happens to be a favorite of many, I have warmed up to it.  Kima can be delicious but it is also one of those dishes that swings wide along the spectrum from very bad to very good, from packing foam dry to wet newspaper mushy.  Making a good kima is pretty easy: the key is to start with a high quality ground meat.

Ground lamb is traditional, but ground chicken, turkey, and beef are all excellent for kima, especially if the lamb is too fatty or not very fresh.  A good rule of thumb:  kima should be savory and spicy, and however minimal or brothy the sauce, its richness is designed to elevate the humble ground meat.   This is how kima becomes comforting and elegant all at once.  It needs little else except rice or roti, and whether we make it studded with dried chilies or with green peas, every bite fills us with warmth and reminds us that hospitality need not be complicated, and that simple foods are sometimes more endearing.

I seldom make kima the same way twice because I don’t follow a particular recipe.   The version below was made with potatoes and peas, because I was in a “the kima needs veggies” kind of mood.   

Kima with Peas and Potatoes


 Several tablespoons unflavored oil

½ teaspoon cumin seeds

2-4 green cardamom pods, lightly smashed

1-2 tej leaves, optional

1-4 green/red chilies, optional

2-4 cloves garlic, minced

1 inch ginger, finely grated

1 cup finely diced onion

1.5 pounds of ground chicken (or lamb or beef )

1 large (Yukon Gold) potato, cut into ½-inch dice

Generous ½ cup peas

1/2 teaspoon each of ground cumin, coriander and turmeric

¼ teaspoon each of ground cinnamon and clove, or ½ teaspoon of garam masala

¼ cup diced tomato or 1 tbsp tomato paste

¼-1/2 cup liquid:  either broth or water

Handful of fresh, chopped cilantro

Salt to taste

Sugar to balance

Step One

Warm the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan and add the tej leaves, chilies, cardamom and cumin seeds.  Heat the oil until the spices become fragrant.  Saute onion, garlic and ginger until onions are translucent.

Step Two

Add the ground meat, season and brown.  After browning, add the remaining ground spices (cumin, coriander, turmeric, garam masala) and tomato.

Step Three

In a separate pan, fry the potatoes with oil and salt.  Alternately, the potatoes may be added to the meat mixture at this stage but the texture will be slightly different.  


Add liquid if needed, adjust seasoning, turn heat to low and simmer for about 20 minutes.  Just when the dish is close to done, add the peas and cook to tenderness.  Remove from heat, add fresh cilantro and serve with rice or roti. 

Posted in Bengali Food | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Under the Chicago Sun

Every year we buy two sweet basil plants.  They are easygoing herbs and ask for little.  They withstand storms and seem impervious to bugs.  The basil flourish, and right around this time each year, the plants delight in flowering and producing seeds, wanting to continue their enchanting circle of life.  But we frown when our plants want to propagate, and he says things like, “You know, we really should do something about the basil.  It’s out of control.” 

I promise to make pesto but do not commit.

He continues, “Just the other day, I pinched off a bunch of flowering tops to prevent the basil from going to seed.”  More hinting.  And then, for encouragement, “Remember last year when you made pesto?  It was really good.” 

Now I have to commit and say that I will buy cashews.  That’s right.  Cashews.  

In Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes is delighted to discover that the pine trees from which the pinoli come are plentiful.  Clusters of trees line driveways and front yards and cones litter the ground:

“He points to the dusky beads scattered all over the driveway . . . Better still, I think, pesto to make with all the proliferating basil that resulted from sticking six plants in the ground.  I love pine nuts on salads.  Pine nuts!  And I’ve been stepping on them.”

Later that afternoon she extracts them from their shells: 

“After half an hour of banging pine nuts, I have about four tablespoons.  My hands are sticky and black.  No wonder the two ounce cellophane bags are so expensive.”

 For purists, pesto is made with pine nuts and basil.  But pine nuts are expensive here as well, and luckily, we were rescued by an episode of Good Eats, in which Alton Brown showcased how pesto could be made with any number of nut and herb combinations, including cashews, walnuts, or pistachios.  After all, pesto is derived from the Italian root pestare, “to pound, to crush.”  A friend suggested that adding cashew to pesto could be my way of paying homage to my Indian roots.  To which I say . . . sure, why not? 

Basil Cashew Pesto

I adapted Mark Bittman’s Basic Pesto recipe, from his How To Cook Everything book.  Bittman is flexible about making pesto, noting that any number of hard cheeses might be used, and that the amount of olive oil needed really depends on the consistency desired.  A good food processor is invaluable. 

I used 4 cups fresh basil and 1/4 cup of roasted cashews and modified the amount of oil.  Dry toasting garlic cloves in their skins on a skillet before adding them to the pesto mellows any acrid or overly pungent garlicky aftertaste.

Ingredients for Basic Pesto (Makes 1 cup)

2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves, big stems discarded, rinsed and dried

1-2 cloves garlic, crushed or chopped

2 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted in a dry skillet

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil or more

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan or other hard cheese (optional)

Place nuts and garlic in a food processor.  Pulse for 10-20 seconds.  Add remaining ingredients and half of the oil.  Pulse, scraping down sides periodically.  Add remaining oil and cheese and pulse until desired consistency is achieved.  And presto! — sunny basil and buttery nuts and cheese to spread or mix as you like.

Posted in Basil, Spices | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment