A Bowl of Rice

Things are getting cold out there. It’s only mid-November but I woke up this morning feeling as if it could have been the dead of winter. Five blankets deep within my bed, I huddled in a little ball, burrowing myself under. Only my nose poked out to the world beyond, numb and pink like a little mouse. I left my house, plump with multiple coats yet despite the layers, the cold settled deep. I was in a cold mood, had cold thoughts. It’s been a cold sort of day.

A cold day calls for foods of comfort. Rich starches, warm flavors, long and slow cooking so that the heat of the stove permeates the house.  I made a simple bowl of white rice for dinner, that wholesome grain that I relied on so much for comfort as a child. The only thing I could stomach when sick and the cure-all for a bad day. Rice, butter, salt, pepper.

At the end of this long week, on the first day in a long time where I simply had nothing to do, on a Friday night when everyone else was busy and my thoughts a little bleak, I bundled up at home and made and basic yet elegant spiced Indian rice. It started with toasting an array of spices; cinnamon, cardamom, black peppercorns, whole cloves, a bay leaf, cumin seeds. The spices were tossed with white basmati rice and left to cook for several minutes in which time the air became perfumed with exotic aromas. Rich and sweet cardamom mingled with the bright and spicy cumin. All the while cinnamon filled my lungs with festive warmth and the toasting rice released deep floral nuttiness. Its smell almost visibly swirled seductively through the air, a belly-dancing courtesan of a smell. The rice, once finished, was topped with a sprinkling of pistachios, crispy fried shallots, and a fresh poached egg, The egg yolk coated the granules of rice for a rich and creamy sauce and each bite brought back a little warmth to the my body as the aromas first passed under my nose and into the mouth.

I know, I know, a little non-traditional for Friday night. Shouldn’t I be out having beer and greasiness and other college Friday night things? Well besides my general lack of “traditional”, I just know that it was alone-time sort of night. A night where I needed to sit down with a bowl of rice. The bowl now sits empty and all is good.

Spiced Indian Rice
Adapted from Journey Kitchen
serves 2-3 as a main dish

1½ cups white basmati rice
2¼ cups water
1½ Tbs. vegetable oil
1½ tsp. cumin seeds
2 whole cloves
2 black peppercorns
½ cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
2 cardamom pods
1 shallot, cut into rings plus oil for frying
a handful of shelled pistachios
1 egg per person
salt and pepper

Wash the rice until the water runs clear and soak in water for an hour. After an hour, drain the excess water. In a deep and thick-bottomed saucepan with a lid or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the cinnamon, bay leaf, cloves, peppercorns, and cardamom. Stir to coat with oil. Add the cumin seeds. When the seeds begin to pop, add the rice. Stir to coat and toast for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once the rice has toasted, add the water and some salt, stir, turn the heat to high, and cook uncovered for 7-8 minutes until the water is almost absorbed. Cover with the lid, turn the heat to medium-low, and continue to cook for 5-7 minutes or until the water is absorbed completely.  Fluff the rice with a fork.

Meanwhile, put a pot on water or the stove and bring to a simmer. This will be for poaching the egg. Also, heat enough vegetable oil in a small frying pan to cover the bottom. Once hot, add the shallots and cook, stirring frequently until crisp and deep golden colored. Transfer to a paper towel to drain. When the water in the pot is simmering, crack the egg/s into the water and cook for about 4 minutes each. Remove from the water and let drain on a paper towel.

To assemble, place a good portion of the rice in a bowl. Top with salt and pepper and a little butter if you’d like. Scatter on the pistachios, onions, and the egg. Season with salt and pepper.

P.S. Be careful that you don’t confuse any of the cardamom pods with the pistachios. They look quite alike and that could lead to an interesting little surprise.

Hot 'n' Cold

Yes, today is the first day of fall. And if I the weather of both today and the last three weeks were to have a theme song, the royalties would have to go to our very own Katy Perry because yes, this weather is PMS-ing like a bitch, I would know! It rains…a lot…and drops down to 45 degrees…and then rains again…and then goes up to 85 degrees, turning the universe into a giant sauna. And this is all in the matter of a day! I’ve been waiting and waiting but those typical crisp cool days where the sky is blue and the air fresh and dry, yeah, they haven’t made a single appearance.

So you know what I did. I decided that maybe the only fix is to be a little mocking. Maybe, I thought, if I brought a little Hot 'n' Cold, a little contrast, I might just get this weather to whip itself back into shape. So of course I used food to implement my plan.

The Hot: Beef Meatball Curry. 

Oh man. This stuff is pretty insane. I loooove curry but don’t get to eat it a lot because my dad isn’t too crazy about spicy stuff and there are no Indian restaurants in my hometown. So now, living on my own, I took full advantage of the fact that I can make a big pot of curry and eat it for four days straight. I just ate the last bit of it a few hours ago and it was still as delicious as it was on day one.

Organic grass fed beef is mixed with hot red chili and ginger and shaped into little meatballs. And then they are slowly simmered in a vat of tomato and coconut sauce flavored with shallots, ginger, garlic, cumin, coriander, and cayenne. The aromas in my kitchen wafted around me in en exotic dance. My tastebuds did the same with each spoonful of sauce and beef-soaked brown basmati rice and naan. The recipe came from Aarti Sequeira. You can find it here. I made it almost verbatim but excluded the cilantro (yuck), used only half of a milder red chili, only 3 cloves of garlic, used a can of diced tomatoes instead of fresh, and reduced the added water to ¼ cup. I really like her by the way and her approach at making Indian food accessible to everyone. I hope she comes out with a cookbook soon.

The Cold: Mint Ice Cream

I actually made this a while ago but one can only go through so much ice cream. The dessert plays up the coldness in two ways. First, obviously, it’s physically cold in the mouth with microscopic ice crystals melting into creaminess on the tongue. But second, a refreshing coolness comes from the fresh peppermint that I got at the farmer’s market. When making it, the mint hangs out with the milk for about 2 hours, permeating it with its tingling qualities. I got the recipe from David Lebovitz and just left out the chocolate because I wanted the pure mint flavor to shine. I loved it although if I try mint ice cream again I may go for a Philadelphia style because the custardiness of the eggs overpowered the mint somewhat.

So will my culinary weather mocking work…I guess we’ll see. If not, I got an amazing meal out of the situation. I guess that’s one way to brighten up the day.

The Orange Season

Today was the first day of this year where I woke up and I could finally sense fall. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the weather went from being 85 degrees on Tuesday, to rainy and 70 degrees on Thursday, to dry, crisp, and 55 degrees today. I honestly had a little extra spring in my step. I had a fleeting urge to listen to Christmas music (it went away fast though) and while standing outside, I closed my eyes and felt like I was back in London.

While I was there last fall, I was disappointed that I would miss out on the entire fall season here in Virginia. No pumpkin patches, Halloween, scarecrows, and harvest festivals. No drives through the mountains for the sake of looking at leaves. But as it turned out, fall in England was quite wonderful. Fresh apples were still everywhere as well as a gorgeous fall fashions that only a true Londoner can pull off. By lucky chance, our tour of a traditional English village in the countryside fell on an absolutely quintessential fall day and it was honestly the one of the most perfect days I think I will ever have. Coloring leaves, Sunday church bells, thatch-roofed cottages, and a big bowl of hot, pumpkin soup. Which brings me back to my main point. England’s fall season still provided a plentiful bounty of orange root and squash vegetables. And if there is one thing you should know about me and my food obsessions, orange root vegetables and squashes are my ultimate weakness. I crave them incessantly during all seasons and all weathers. Carrots, pumpkins, butternut squashes, golden beets, sweet potatoes. England was all about them…and that made me happy.

Though, on second thought, this does not explain why UK Starbucks neglected to offer the Pumpkin Spice Latte. But that’s okay; I actually had my first one of the season today and it was most definitely worth the wait. But regardless of that, I was lucky to not have to give up my favorite food for a year for the sake of a study abroad trip. Because I don’t think I could have waited.

I also noticed that with the strong influence of Indian cuisine in London, many orange vegetables were prepared with a Middle Eastern style. Butternut squashes popped up in many vegetarian curries and carrot salads spiced with raisins and coriander were ever popular. But my favorite was the sweet potato falafel. I would get this amazing sweet potato falafel sandwich from Pret with spinach, yogurt dressing, red onion, parsley, and hummus on whole wheat bread.. And though I regretfully didn’t try it there, the food chain Leon also offered a sweet potato falafel wrap. Luckily, however, they have a cookbook with the recipe and with the help of a blog post from Heidi Swanson, I retrieved the recipe and tried it out on my own.

They were delicious too and I love that they are baked rather than fried so that the sweet potato flavor shines through rather than being clogged by oil. The sesame seeds add a nutty crunch that gives way to a warm and creamy interior. The spices give an aromatic warmth but I dipped the falafel in some plain greek yogurt which provided a cooling contrast. These little morsels were really easy to make too, which makes London and fall memories a quick meal away.

Sweet Potato Falafel
Adapted from Leon and 101 Cookbooks
Makes 18 falafel

Note: When I say easy I don’t necessarily mean quick. Though they dirty hardly any dishes and require little labor-intensive work, they do take some time. My suggestion is to bake and mash the sweet potatoes the night before and refrigerate them overnight. Then, the next morning, mix with the rest of the ingredients and let it hang out in the refrigerator all day. That way, when it’s time to make dinner, all you have to do is shape and bake the falafel. You’ll notice that they are actually vegan and gluten-free too so it’s a great way to treat people with any dietary restrictions.

2 medium sweet potatoes
2 cloves minced garlic
1½ tsp. ground cumin
1½ tsp. ground coriander
handful of chopped parsley
1 cup garbanzo bean flour
½ lemon
salt and pepper
sesame seeds (about 1-2 Tbs)

In a 425-degree oven place the whole sweet potatoes directly on the rack for 45 minutes to 1 hour until they are tender in the center. Remove from the oven and let them cool. Once cool, remove the flesh from the skins and either refrigerate until ready to use or move to the next step.

Mix the cooled sweet potato flesh with the garlic, cumin, coriander, parsley, garbanzo bean flour, and lemon juice in a bowl. Mash with the back of a fork until quite creamy and smooth. Season with the salt and pepper. Place the mixture in the refrigerator for at least an hour to firm up.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400 degrees and oil a baking sheet. Using two large spoons, scoop up a mound of the mixture and pass it back and forth between the concave sides of the spoons to form a football-like shape, but with three curved sides. Sprinkle the outside with the sesame seeds and place on the tray. Bake for about 15-17 minutes until the sides are golden and slightly crispy. Serve immediately while warm with toasted pita and a good dipping sauce like tsatziki or, if you want to keep it vegan, and lemon tahini sauce.