Thursday, June 19, 2008

SND All-Vegetarian, Starving-Artist Special!

***Due to an extended Day of The Locusts that SND has been experiencing, we have been holding this post back. Karl's computer had to go to the hospital and it returned without any of the brilliant pictures that were taken for the last 2 dinners. So, after waiting and hoping, I am now giving up and letting the post go without pics. Enjoy Zora's fabulous and entertaining prose, and use your imagination. TR***

Hard as it might be to believe, Tamara and I occasionally take others’ needs and requests into consideration when planning dinner. This time we even went so far as to put together a totally vegetarian meal. (The same person doing the requesting also suggested it be a teetotalers’ meal as well, but that we truly cannot hack.)

This was the invitation:

Hey Hungry Kiddies!

Zora here. I've been go so long, you probably thought I ran off and joined that messianic cult in New Mexico. Or, judging from the theme of the coming dinner, an ashram.
Nope—I'm not a virgin (I can't believe it feels weird to type that—Dad, don't read this!), so they wouldn't take me at Strong City, and yoga still makes me cranky. But I am taking a wee break from updating my 856th guidebook and doing a little cooking to get back to my roots.
Nope—I'm not Indian, either. It's just that I taught myself to cook by reading Indian recipes in grad school, so these feel like my culinary roots. I'll probably realize what a horrible fraud I am when I finally get around to going to India, but I did once have an Indian roommate who did not object to my cooking, so I think you'll like it too.
Anyway, I can't tell you exactly what I'm going to cook because I don't have my enormous Indian veggie bible with me (T. and I are still in Mexico), but it will probably involve some chickpea-and-coconut business, some homemade paneer, the lovely "Lake Palace" eggplant (all soft and wonderful with fennel seeds), and about 40 other dishes, many involving generous lashings of ghee. Not too much of it will be spicy, and none of it will have meat.
But if you generally eat meat (like I do), you're of course still welcome to come. I've only ever had one person protest an all-veggie dinner like this, and he was from Egypt, where a big hunk of meat still shows someone you love them. But believe me when I say a meatless dinner is not a sign that I love you less.

Location TBD. We'll let you know in the confirmation email, but don't expect that till Tuesday, when we're both back from the sunny Riviera Maya. (Less than 36 hours left, and I've so far avoided a sunburn or a hangover. I guess I'm a grownup now.)
RSVP now for some veggie lovin'!
Saturday, May 17
7pm onward
In love and garlic ('cause we're no Jains!)--

Z & T

When I got back home and started trying to plan the menu, though, I had a really hard time: I was basically starving for everything in my cookbooks, but there were so many factors to be juggled, to make sure I didn’t wind up with eight coconut dishes, or a whole plate full of bright-yellow food.

In the end, I went with the following, a mix of dishes from my basic Madhur Jaffrey book and my ginormous book titled simply Vegetarian Indian Cooking:

*Spicy nuts, cool cucumber wedges sprinkled with cayenne and lime, parathas and coconut-cilantro chutney as snacks
*Paneer with peas and mint
*Chickpeas with potatoes and coconut—a starch bomb, but worth it, based on previous experience; writing about it today, I wonder why I didn’t just leave out the potatoes
*Lake Palace eggplant—a crazy delicious dish from Madhur Jaffrey, lovely and soft-tasting with fennel seeds, and probably my all-time favorite Indian dish
*Butternut squash puree with coconut—except I opted for hazelnuts instead of coconut, so as not to duplicate the chickpea dish
*Whole cauliflowers with spicy tomato gravy—I picked this because I thought they would look hilarious on platters, a brainy treat for vegetarian zombies!
*Walnut-coriander raita
*Gujerati-style carrot salad—uh, don’t substitute ghee for veg oil in the recipe, because it congeals and looks unappealing; also, pay attention when you put the Cuiz attachment in, so you don’t wind up slicing your carrots rather than grating them
*Half-assed rice—I’m sure I had some better recipe picked at one point, but this is what I had to go for in the end

The night before, I melted down a bunch of butter for ghee. When people ask me what ghee is, I tell them it’s simply butter concentrate. You let butter simmer for an hour or so, until all the solids have settled out on the bottom of the pan—a lot longer than if you’re just clarifying butter in the resto-Frenchie way. (Oooh, typing this reminds me that I still have a little Tupperware full of the toasty milk solids…yum.) The remaining clear stuff is like the silkiest, most pure butter flavor you can imagine.

I also made a bunch of paneer. People at dinner were agog that I’d made my own cheese, but, people, trust me, it’s just not that impressive. You boil the milk, you stir in the lemon juice, you stir a teeny bit, and then you drain it all into a handkerchief and let it drain. Next thing you know—or, in this case, after you stagger home from a party that same night, and dimly remember you left the cheese hanging in the sink—you have a super-firm ball of pure protein goodness. If it’s drunk-proof, it’s definitely easy.

Speaking of that staggering home from a party… The day-of cooking did not start off so well. Working on about five hours’ sleep and a colossal hangover, I tried to get organized. While I was cleaning the kitchen, Tamara called to say she had a freakish rash and her hands were so swollen she wasn’t sure she’d be able to make dessert (orange-rosewater beignets, she’d decided). She also had taken a Benadryl and was sounding more than a little stoned. I was just relieved she could make it at all, because I was starting to get The Fear.

So, a fine pair we made: I was suffering the death of half my brain cells, and Tamara was both totally high and totally inexperienced in cooking Indian food. We stood in the kitchen for hours, it felt like, squinting at the menus I’d taped to the cabinets.

After a bit of muddling around, and chatting with my houseguest, Tamara decided her Benadryl had subsided enough that she could move over to wine. She busted out one of my fave rosés, a sparkly thing by Gruet (from New Mexico—rah!), and I spent a little time sipping it and staring at the bubbles trailing up from the bottom of the glass. I can’t say the hair of the dog worked wonders, but after that I did feel like I could concentrate better.

Unfortunately, it was already 5pm—two hours away from guests arriving, and only one dish out of six squillion had been set to simmering.

But the kitchen was fragrant, at least. And it got more so once we started frying up the bases for more dishes. The core of most Indian food is that first you fry whole spices in hot oil—very quickly, so they don’t burn.

Into the whole spices you add a paste of most of the wet ingredients, and cook that down. Depending on the dish, that paste will be ginger and onion, or ginger and garlic, or all those things and a lot of green chili. The key to getting a good, rich flavor in the food is frying down that paste so that all the moisture evaporates—you know you’ve hit the sweet spot when the ghee starts to ooze in little pools, and you hear a sputtering noise.

After getting hit in the face with hot, popping mustard seeds and spattered with lava-temp ginger paste, Tamara decided to focus on frying up the little cubes of potato for the chickpea dish—she felt like she was back in her element, technique-wise.

***Here is where the photos would be, if they had come back from the computer hospital when karl's computer came back. Is now the time to point out that Karl is the very proud owner of a superior MAC? Perhaps not.

When we were on the second-to-last dish, Tamara suggested we get the rice going. By this time I’d misplaced my wineglass, and that hair of the dog was totally worn off. I couldn’t deal with the idea of rice math (why do I never remember how much dry rice feeds a crowd of 20? For the record, it’s way less than five cups) or whether I wanted to do it pilaf-style, or where I’d rinse the rice. In a tactical error, I barked, “Later.”

Later, we stood around, watching the clock, waiting for the rice cookers to click off, waiting for our guests to mutiny. They didn’t sound too anxious, but I knew the cucumber spears were long gone, and everyone had eaten as many hot nuts as they could handle. It was 9pm. I was having flashbacks to the first-ever Roving Gastronome dinner in 2001, which was served at least three hours late and involved everyone getting impossibly wasted while they waited.

But then the rice was done, and the parade of dishes was on. People were digging in ravenously. Everyone grooved on the eggplant as much as I do (except Karl, who gets a scratchy throat).

Later, Tamara did manage to pull together dessert, though Katie provided the fine motor skills, shaping the little balls of rosewater-y pate a choux and frying them up to ethereal deliciousness, rolled in almond flour and cinnamon.

Our guests toddled off happy. I flopped on the couch and my music-savvy houseguest and I listened to the last two songs in the five-hour playlist he’d put together. (Stroke of genius, delegating that job, I gotta say.)

Two crucial lessons came out of this party:

1) If you don’t put your hands on the ingredients the day you’re using them, they don’t exist. Real credit for this lesson goes to Chef Rory Dunaway of the Ritz-Carlton Cancun, where Tamara and I had both taken cooking classes the week before. Chef Rory only shared that bit of wisdom in Tamara’s section, so I blithely assumed I had an assload of carrots in my bottom refrigerator drawer, just like I’d seen the week before. No, in fact. I had about six carrots, and then when they got sliced instead of shredded, they produced the weensiest carrot salad ever. Come to think of it, Tamara, hater of all orange foods, probably sabotaged that dish.

2) If you want men to come to your party, serve meat. The slightly skewed gender demographics of New York City were off the charts that night, as we had only three male guests out of 21. Awk-ward. Perhaps the next SND will be devoted to raw pork chops, or kill-your-own lamb, or something equally primeval and testosterone-friendly. Probably also hangover-friendly.

Live and learn, kids—live and learn.