Valentine’s Day

 

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The day began toasting a fresh batch of cardamom granola and starting a batch of 5 grain bread.  We walked our companion “Tea” through the neighborhoods of Mission Hills.  Spring flowers were in bloom and sweet scents wafted through the chilled morning air.  Winter in coastal San Diego often provides the advantage of blue skies accompanied by a kiss of morning coolness while the sun warms the skin.  The sensuality of this spawned meditations on the loving culinary tasks which lay ahead, and I am reminded that rites of spring originating from earthly cycles of regeneration have been celebrated since the beginning of time.  After returning home with our 13 year old German Shorthair friend, I took advantage of the clear day to plant some cactus and harvest herbs from the garden before returning to the kitchen to punch down the bread. 

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Later, as the aroma of baking bread filled the house, a plan for dinner started to take shape.  Four of us were to dine this evening and small portions were appropriate to frame the dessert this Valentines Day.  The sweet course would be dark chocolate and maple mousse in tempered chocolate cups garnished with a chocolate heart and a thick raspberry sauce.  The preamble to this decadence was a fresh organic pea soup garnished with a mirapoix relish. 

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The delicate flavors of the soup were followed with a dish of Latin corn blini,  red quinoa “caviar” and fire roasted poblano chile aioli. 

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On the side, was a preparation of marinated baked tofu encrusted with almond, coconut, chile and lime over a papaya-ginger sauce.  The meal was influenced by flavors from around the world to honor love, a universal aspiration.  Needless to say,  the meal was a wonderful preamble to a great evening.

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At the Market

As the seasons change, the Hillcrest market transforms to accommodate the wares of the moment and the people who provide them.  The throngs who frequent the bazaar style market are participants in this grand and timeless exercise of humanity. 

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This visit did not disappoint.  Jenny, visiting from British Columbia, joined me exploring booths I tend to neglect, but nevertheless find interesting.  The Eye of Buddha booth had singing bowls complimented by colorful clothing and sweet scented incenses from Tibet and Nepal.  They sponsor monthly singing bowl concerts, (www.deepsoundmeditation.com).  We also ran our fingers through French cotton tablecloths and sampled raw Peruvian truffles from Guanni chocolates.  

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Jenny bought an Indian stainless steel “tiffin,” which is like a stacking lunchbox or indelible carryout container. Jenny found some wonderful fresh mango juice and I purchased some sugar snap pea plants for the garden.  Of course, we stopped by my usual haunts, such as Koral’s Tropical Fruit Farms where Barry had just returned from a raw foods immersion trip in the Caribbean.  He had 4 kinds of avocados, chermoya, guava, Meyer lemons, Persian limes, kumquats, Paige tangerines and blood oranges. 

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Down the aisle, La Milpa Organica was clearly in between harvests, yet provided a variety of beets that turned out tempting and sweet.  Sage Mountain Farms was also somewhat low in stock, but I managed to find some beautiful radicchio, Swiss chard, romaine lettuce and baby bok choy.  We finished this week’s journey buying fresh organic pomegranate juice and Satsuma tangerines.  

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Chapati Tales

All sorrows are less with bread.  ~Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

 

 

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The chapati may be the original bread…flat, without yeast and prepared over open fires.  The technique has been used for millennia and is adaptable to many different cooking circumstances, such as hot stones, coals or open flame.  The art of chapati making is often meditative and conducive for simple, yet elegant meals that focus on fresh and local flavors.

My first exposure to Indian food started in Cleveland in 1972.  The marvelously flexible and flavorful bread was served at the Hare Krishna temple on Sundays.  Soon, I became a regular, helping to make hundreds of chapatis in the clean and unpretentious kitchen that once belonged to John D. Rockefeller’s daughter.  I was shown proper ratios of flour, water and oil along with the best methods for making the dough by hand.  Taking on the job of kneading, I also learned how the dough was similar to the clay I was working with in pottery class at school.  Kneading and resting the dough were important for good chapatis: Ten minutes of kneading, then fifteen minutes of resting.  Sometimes, we would change the technique and “age” the dough in water overnight, which made the dough elastic and with a slight tang.  Often, we would seek the help of Indian women who learned the art of chapati making in early childhood.  I marveled how they deftly handled the thin rolling pins, turning a ball of dough into evenly rolled, thin, flat and perfectly round breads in a matter of seconds.  A talent passed on from mother to daughter for millennia, vividly displayed with fluid hand movements and perfectly puffed breads.

Living in the Northern Indian town of Vrndavan, I was immersed in a culinary yoga which maintained a strong emphasis on the balance between chapatis, rice, dahls and subjis.  The total chapati experience was revealed with the invite to lunch in local homes where I was able to witness this sweet perfection of Indian hospitality.  First and foremost, Vaishnava Hindu households always made a small portion as an offering to Vishnu first, thus “spiritualizing” the food and stressing the importance role food play in a life.  In a social setting, this was rarely shared with company, as the guest was made to feel as they were the only object of attention.  In my case, a desire to learn about food often brought extra demonstrations and detailed information about the preparation of food.  The menu was usually simple local fare such as mung dahl, basmati rice studded with black cardamom, a subji such as begun sak (eggplant and spinach) and, of course, a steaming fresh chapati.  Not just warm, but cooked to perfection, puffed up with a small vent of steam pouring out the top, just at the very moment the bread was placed on my plate.  As my fingers lifted the last morsel of tender bread off the plate, another fresh, perfectly prepared chapati would be placed in front of me…the steam swirling and beckoning.  This gastronomical ritual would continue until my belly could consume no more.  The most amazing part was that these experiences were merely daily lunches.  The sophistication of the food, high etiquette and attention to detail were simply how life was lived.

From The Hare Krishna Cookbook, circa 1973
From The Hare Krishna Cookbook, circa 1973, Copyright BBT

A “white” whole wheat flour works well.  The best flour to use is the durum whole wheat “atta” flour sold at Indian import stores.

To make this recipe vegan, place the chapatis directly in a covered container to keep the steam in.  

The chapatis will retain moisture and be soft for serving.  

Let’s Celebrate a New Year of Happy Cooking

Hand made ravioli with vegetables

Cooking is much more than a biological need.  It can be a form of creative expression, a language chock full of sensual communication through the subtleties of taste, scent, sight, sound, touch and emotion.  Food often expresses our state of mind and cooking can be revealing to those who partake.  On the other hand, it also can connect us with earthly rhythms through a medium of fresh ingredients and preparation methods.  Some of the travesties of modern relationships with food consumption come from the pre-packaged, pre-cooked and artificially preserved products that distance us (both mentally and physically) from the frequently significant workings of the planet Earth.  As I discovered in Indian traditions, only freshly prepared food was considered fit for a civilized lifestyle.  Old food and leftovers were relegated to feeding animals and charity.  Before refrigeration, this was true in most cultures where food was both a source of nutrition and loving expression.

The immediate sensuous beauty of an attentively crafted meal is why a chef’s culinary performance may be eagerly anticipated.  Food is at once intimate and exposed in a very existential way.  Each meal consists of a series of moments which can lead to lasting mental imagery.  Through the dialects of food, inhibitions may also be discarded, allowing one to freely participate in the grand scheme of life.  Food also offers an opportunity to find relevance in everyday occurrences through endearing connections with people and the planet.  Understanding what, and how, to eat is a defining key to quality in a lifestyle.  It is also a source of joy and an exercise in intelligence, expressed in French as joie de vivre Whether elaborate or simple, celebrating every meal can add years to a lifespan as well as enhance one’s relationship with the world and its inhabitants.

Cooking Beautiful Food

Cooking beautiful food does not require a degree or years of experience.  Nature has provided plenty of enchanting and gorgeous foodstuffs.  To start, a trip to a farm, market or grocery store can be an inspiring adventure.  Each vegetable has a unique personality, formed by a specific combination of water, soil, sun and even moonlight.  Just as every person is unique, each vegetable has an individual fingerprint.  Other ingredients have enticing characteristics as well. The greenish hue of extra virgin olive oil, a bin of grains like rice, wheat berries, barley or millet; Spices like the reddish hue of black mustard seeds, green cardamom pods, bright red of paprika, smooth bark of cinnamon, shocking yellow of turmeric and pellet shaped perfection of whole coriander; Herbs such as the crisp edges of fresh mint leaves, the evergreen woodsy rosemary, the delicate strands of fresh dill and the sensual leaves of fresh Genovese basil.  Food entices the mind to imagine possibilities of cooking and eating.  The attraction can be almost carnal, evoking emotions and desires from deep within the psyche.  This is why it is prudent to shop without the presence of hunger pangs!