Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why I cry for chai

I've never really been a coffee drinker.  Sure, it smells great.  I keep it on hand for guests and for my husband, who drinks coffee 24/7.  He can go to sleep immediately after having a cup of coffee.  In fact, he can sleep just about anywhere, anytime, any way.  I envy that... 

I might have a cup of coffee now and then, but it has to be decaf (Vindaloo on caffeinated coffee = Vindaloo on crack) and it has to be French Market coffee or something similar because I really like that chicory taste.  And of course the steamed milk.  Or half and half.  Or whipped cream with Demerara sugar.  Or vanilla ice cream.  Or... 

What I really crave and what is typically my companion in the early morning hours (when I am at my most charming and witty--4:30 a.m.) is chai.  I adore chai.  I love it.  I need it.  I must have it every morning.  And when I travel, it travels with me.   My first experiences with chai was in the homes of Indian families that befriended me.  Whether early morning or late in the afternoon, chai was strong, sweet, hot, and pungent.  I observed my Indian friends carefully and watched them make chai, all of them using basically the same proceedure.

The first rule?  Always use good-quality tea, whether loose (preferred) or in a bag.  Lipton Yellow Label (for rich tea taste and tannins) and Taj Mahal (for the flavor of roses) were highly recommended.  These loose teas can be found in most Indian grocery stores and at some Fiesta Markets.  Of course, you can make chai with grocery store tea bags, and I watched many Indian families use Lipton brand.  But authentic chai really tastes best with high quality tea.

The second rule for a good cup of chai: never put cold milk or cream into hot chai.  It will ruin the taste (and it really does).  Always heat the milk as you're boiling the tea, then add the hot milk.  There are really no other rules, but in the years that I've been making chai for myself, I've developed a few habits that seem to yield the best results.  I prefer unsweetened, organic soymilk to dairy products.  That's partly due to lactose intolerance, but also because soymilk lends a nutty, rich quality to the chai I make that is very delicious.

Also, since most chai is served with some kind of sweetener (and Indians mostly use cane sugar), and since I prefer it sweetened myself, I use Stevia.  This non-caloric natural sweetener is several times sweeter than sugar, so a little goes a long way.  It is also NOT a neurotoxin, like those little pink, yellow, and blue packets a lot of us use.  There are, however, some complaints about Stevia, so do your own research and decide what is right for you regarding sweetners.

I want to share three chai recipes with you (find them below).  The first two are made in the Kashmiri tradition and the last is more what most people are used to if they buy a cup of chai at a coffeehouse.  I make all of them interchangeably, depending upon my whim.   I make a large batch of chai without milk/cream/soymilk) and keep it in the refrigerator until I'm ready to heat and drink it.  When both the tea and the milk are cold, they can be heated together in the same cup either on the stovetop or in the microwave with very little compromise in taste.  I hope you enjoy these recipes as much as I do.

Shirchai  (Kashmiri salt tea)

9 cups water, divided
salt to taste
2 Tbs. semi-fermented tea leaves (such as oolong)*
15-20 seeds of green cardamom (sometimes I split 3 green cardamom pods and put      everything in; you can get these at an Indian grocery store, Fiesta Market, or at Penzey's)
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
2 cinnamon sticks (I prefer the Ceylon softstick cinnamon from Penzey's)
1 generous slice fresh ginger (don't bother to peel)
5 peppercorns (I prefer the India Special Extra Bold from Penzey's)
1 tsp. white poppy seeds (optional, from Fiesta Market or an Indian grocery store)
1 pint whole milk, half and half or soymilk
6 Tbs. heavy cream (optional)
2 Tbs. ground pistachios (optional)

To make enough for 6 people:**

1.  Pour 6 cups water into a heavy pan.  Add the tea leaves, salt, cardamom seeds or split pods, and ground cardamom and bring to a boil.
2.  Reduce heat and simmer gently for about 30 minutes, or until the volume is reduced by about 2/3; i.e., you should have about 2 cups liquid.
3.  Add cinnamon sticks, ginger, peppercorns and poppyseeds. 
4.  Add 3 cups water, returning to a boil.  Boil for about 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and strain as many loose ingredients as you can with a shallow mesh strainer or a spider.
5.  Heat mik/half and half/soymilk gently over low heat until steaming.
6.  Add strained tea to hot milk and combine well.
7.  Pour into 6 cups.  Float a little heavy cream and ground pistachios on top, if you wish.

*There are many brands of loose oolong tea in a well-stocked Asian market (such as MT Supermarket in Austin, TX).  I use Koa Shan (because of the beautiful packaging) but have also tried Joy Luck.  Both are very good.

**You can make the tea, strain it, and not add the milk, then cool and chill it in the fridge.  Then you can reheat with cold milk one cup at a time.

Kahvi (Kashmiri Green Tea Chai)

6 cups water
2 cinnamon sticks
5 green cardamom pods, crushed
pinch saffron (about 6 strands)
2 Tbs. loose green tea or 6 green teabags
1 to 2 Tbs. ground almonds (optional)

To make enough for 4 people:

1.  Boil the water with the cinnamon sticks and cardamom pods until the water is brown and the steam smells like cinnamon, about 10 minutes.
2.  Remove from heat and add loose tea or teabags.  Add saffron.
3.  Cover pot and steep for 3 to 5 minutes.
4.  Pour into 4 cups and sweeten to taste if you wish.
5.  Sprinkle with ground almonds before serving (optional). 
6.  You can warm milk/half and half/or soymilk separately and combine with the tea, but this is not traditional.

Coffeehouse Chai

Combine the following ingredients in a large pot:

1 cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp. black peppercorns
2 bay leaves (substitute dried basil for an interesting change)
2 generous slices of fresh gingerroot (no need to peel)
15 cloves
8 green pods of green cardamom, crushed
1 Tbs. fennel seed or anise seed
1 inch piece vanilla bean (optional)
1 2-inch piece orange peel (optional)
8 cups water

Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and cover.  Steep for 15 minutes.


2 Tbs. loose Darjeeling or black tea

Bring to a boil again and simmer for 5 minutes.  Strain.  You can cool and chill the tea to be reheated later one cup at a time (adding cold milk and sweetener if you wish).

Or you can heat 2 cups milk/half and half/soymilk and add to tea.  Sweeten to taste if desired.
Makes about 8 cups chai.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Entertaining: the oldest profession

No matter what you consider to be the oldest profession, it all seems to boil down to one thing: entertaining.  Hosting dinners and entertaining guests come naturally to me.  You might say I emerged from the womb fully dressed in cocktail party attire (pearls optional) with a pitcher of martinis in one fist and a plate of canapes in the other.  My mother, understandably, was appalled, being the fine upstanding Baptist woman that she is.  But nevertheless, I was born to entertain.  Any further comments on my involvement with allegedly what is claimed to be the original oldest profession can be provided by my family and close friends, who will be happy to clear up any misunderstandings.

So last night, when friends arrived, I was in a festive mood.  I was relaxed, happy, and enormously pleased with myself.  Being (slightly) OCD--but never having been formally diagnosed--I had prepared enough in advance leaving me little to do before my guests arrived.  And to give credit where credit is due, my husband had vacuumed and neatened the house up a bit, something that prevents me from unraveling at the last minute because, um, I've left those details until the last minute.  Table?  Perfect.  Cocktails?  Chilled.  Food?  Ready to go.  Music and lighting?  Devastating.  It's situations like these that make people overly confident though, isn't it?

So I approach my attempts at entertaining with a critical eye.  I try to pretend I'm outside the fishbowl, so to speak.  And I frequently invite my husband and my guests to provide commentary and critique, sort of like asking them to complete a customer satisfaction survey.  Now, how many of you working in the oldest profession can claim that you do that

If you have good friends, they'll want to be honest with you.  Family?  Not so much.  They've experienced the payback, right?  In a larger group, people new to my style and personality tend to get that "deer in the headlights" look and glance nervously at the other guests as I ask questions about their experience in my home.  I make copious notes about what was said, what could be improved, what details were overlooked and etc.  Why?  Because it's important! (OK, this is where those of you with diagnostic skills will recognize that I do, in fact, meet DSM criteria for that pesky little OCD thing I mentioned earlier.)

So what I learned last night was that my dining room table was a.) too small for four people, and b.) unstable.  What I learned about my dining room chairs is that they are much like my dining room table.  So now my project is to work on more comfortable seating so that guests can feel more relaxed and water and wine glasses will remain upright!

But let's get to the food.  The evening was very simple: cocktails, appetizer, main dish, dessert and coffee.  And hats off to my wonderful new gal pal for finding this great recipe and bringing absolutely the most incredible brownies I've ever tasted.

There is, of course, a story about one of these recipes.  I learned to make Chicken Lucrecia while in undergrad school after being befriended by a Guatemalan family and watching them cook.  I don't think that this dish is at all indicative of Guatemalan cuisine, but I've been making it for almost 30 years and it brings people to their knees every time.  Yes, it's really that good.  It's also ridiculously simple and it makes your house smell absolutely divine while you're cooking it.  I remember making it once for my grandfather, a great lover of food (and also being a Baptist, a closet lover of wine).  He tasted it, pronounced it good after a couple of bites, and got up from the table.  He returned with a bottle of Sriracha, the Vietnamese chili sauce, and proceeded to squirt a large pool of it on his dinner plate.  He announced that he thought that this sauce would make his dinner "taste more like Guatemala."  My mouth dropped open in horror.  I felt like the chef in a fine dining establishment who was watching someone put catsup on tournedos of beef.  But my grandfather was on to something.  The chilies tasted great with the chicken, and I later developed Salsa Dulce y Caliente to accompany the dish.

Chicken Lucrecia with Salsa Dulce y Caliente
I've posted four recipes below for you to try.  Wine suggestion for dinner: Rosa del Golfo 2007 (Italy).  One of my wine guys at Spec's suggested this rose, which is dry, herbaceous, and slightly floral.  Smooth on the palate and very unusual.  This wine should prove once and for all that PINK DOES NOT EQUAL SWEET. 

The cocktail recipe is based on a drink a friend of mine told me about.  Of course, I cannot leave any recipe for cocktails alone.  I had to put my own spin on it.  We all thought it was quite good.

Pre-Lent 75

8 oz. lemon juice (I used a combination of fresh lemon juice and Meyer lemon juice)
8 oz. vanilla vodka
a generous splash of Stirrings Blood Orange Bitters (you can find this at Spec's)
cheap, slightly sweet champange, chilled

Combine lemon juice, vodka and blood orange bitters.  Chill until serving time.  When ready to serve, pour 2 oz. of vodka mixture into each martini glass.  Top off with champagne.  Garnish with something fun (like sugared mandarin orange sections on long skewers).  Makes 4 very generous (and slightly lethal) cocktails.

Layered and Chopped Salad
Serve this beautiful salad individually in oversize goblets…the dressing is a riff on the one used at Ruth's Chris for their chopped salad

½ pint cherry tomatoes, cocktail tomatoes or grape tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 romaine leaves or green leaf lettuce leaves, ribs removed
4 radishes, sliced approx. ¼ inch thick and julienned
½ cup pitted black olives, sliced thinly
4 hearts of palm, sliced thinly
2 large avocados cut into ½ inch dice
1 cup small cooked cocktail shrimp or 1 cup jumbo lump crabmeat (optional)
2 Tbs. red onion, in fine dice
¼ cup garlic pita chips or garlic bagel chips, crushed (fine enough to sprinkle, large
            enough to provide texture)

½  cup sour cream
½ cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil (or 2 Tbs. dried)
½ cup fresh lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
garlic powder (optional)
milk or half and half for thinning (optional)

1.    Halve cherry tomatoes and place on oiled baking sheet.  Sprinkle generously with salt and freshly ground pepper.  Roast at 375 degrees for about 10 minutes, or until tomatoes are caramelized.  Set aside to cool.
2.   Stack lettuce leaves together and roll into a log.  With a sharp knife, slice thinly into ribbons.
3.   Divide lettuce evenly between serving dishes.  Layer ingredients, dividing evenly between serving dishes, in the following order: radishes, black olives, hearts of palm, avocado, shrimp or crabmeat, roasted tomatoes, and red onion.  Chill salads while you make the dressing.
4.   Combine dressing ingredients and whisk until smooth.  If you want a dressing that will drizzle, thin with milk or half and half (I prefer this consistency).
5.   Dress salads with desired amount of dressing and top with crushed pita or bagel chips.  Serves 4.


2 Tbs. olive oil
4 ribs celery, halved lengthwise and cut into 3 inch strips
2 green bell peppers, cored, seeded and cut into ½ inch strips
3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 chicken, cut up into serving size pieces, skin and fat removed (I sometimes use 4
      bone-in thighs and 2 bone-in breasts and cut the breast into two pieces)
2 large tomatoes (or 4 roma tomatoes) cored and cut into wedges
8 oz. sour cream

1.     In a large kettle or Dutch oven, put the olive oil, celery, peppers, and garlic.  Salt and pepper generously. 
2.     Layer the chicken pieces on top and salt and pepper again.  Cover and cook over LOW HEAT for 45-60 minutes, or until chicken is tender. 
3.     Remove chicken from pot and cool.  When cool enough to handle, remove cartilage and bones, pulling chicken into bite-size pieces with your hands.  Set aside. 
4.     Add tomatoes and sour cream, stir well and heat gently over medium-low heat until tomatoes begin to soften.  Correct for salt. 
5.     Return boned chicken to pot, stir well, cover and heat through gently. 
6.     Serve over steamed rice.  Pass Salsa Dulce y Caliente.  Serves 4.  Even better the next day.

Salsa Dulce y Caliente

4 Peppadew peppers, drained
2 Poquillo peppers, drained
2 Tbs. sambal oelek (Indonesian chili-garlic sauce)
2 Tbs. Sriracha (Vietnamese chili sauce)
2 Tbs. water

Put all ingredients in a blender or food processor.  Pulse until blended, but still coarse-textured.  Makes about ¾ cup salsa.  Serve with Chicken Lucrecia.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Citrangequats and roasted kale: of thee I sing

I have a very good friend whose father grows lots of interesting things, including a wide variety of peppers and obscure cultivars of fruit trees.  Recently, she presented me with what appeared to be a lemon.  It was large, thin-skinned, and had an incredibly intoxicating spicy floral scent.  "Ah, a Meyer lemon," I commented.  "No, this is something different.  Some other lemon that starts with "s," or at least that's what I think my father said." 

It turns out that what I had was a citrangequat, a hybrid citrus fruit that was a cross between a citrange and a kumquat.  More specifically, the cultivar I had was called "Thomasville," and more specific still, this fruit was a kumquat hybrid, not a lemon hybrid.  But that golden fruit, with its deeply glowing, intensely aureate skin was already putting ideas in my head and I had plans to devour it and perfume something delectable with its heady bouquet.

How to get the most of this unexpected gift?  Since the citrangequat seemed very much like a Meyer lemon, I started to think about it from that point of reference.  And since it was such a large fruit, I could do more than just make dinner out of it.  I was expecting dinner guests later in the week, so I would reserve part of that citrangequat for pre-dinner cocktails.  The rest of if was mine, and mine alone.

So all day yesterday, I dreamed and dreamed about that fruit.  I dreamed about what I would want to eat with it.  And the recipes from last night's dinner are below:  Pan Seared Halibut with Fried Citrangequat and Salted Capers, and Roasted Kale with Toasted Garlic.  I also made a quick pilaf out of leftover basmati rice (sauteed shallot. butter, white wine and a generous pinch of Adams Reserve Citrus Seafood Rub).  I didn't serve a stupendous wine with this dinner.  Cavit Pinot Grigio is a well-balanced budget white that goes well with fish, and that's what I drank.  Hey, sometimes the food just has to shine. 

And while we're on the subject of food, let's talk about the kale.  Whatever your preconceived notions about this deep green, woody-stemmed wild and wooly relative of cabbage, they will change once you try roasting it simply with EVOO, salt, pepper and minced dehydrated garlic (that will also toast beautifully all over).  Kale treated in this way is nutty, deeply flavorful and seems to evaporate in your mouth in an explosion of intense flavor.  Not at all the nightmare of your childhood, cooked to an unattractive grey-green and tucked into your napkin at the dinner table.  In fact, roast any vegetable and you will see its true nature shine.

And the results apres un reve?  Let's just say this girl is winning the war in the battle of man-food vs. food a man will eat.

Pan-Seared Halibut with Fried Citrangequat
and Salted Capers

2 halibut fillets, approximately 6 oz. each
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 Tbs. butter
2 Tbs. EVOO
½ citrangequat (or substitute Meyer lemon), in very thin slices, seeds removed, juice reserved if possible
2 Tbs. salted capers, rinsed and drained
2 Tbs. citrangequat or Meyer lemon juice
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish

1.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2.  Dry halibut fillets with paper towels and generously season with salt and pepper on both sides.
3.  Heat butter and EVOO over medium-high heat in a medium sauté pan that is oven-safe.
4.  Fry citrangequat/lemon slices, turning to brown evenly.  Watch carefully so citrangequat/lemon doesn’t burn.  Remove to a serving platter.
5.   In the same pan, begin cooking the halibut.  Your aim is to develop a great crust on the bottom of your fish, so have the courage of your convictions to leave that fish alone for about 4 minutes.  Brush top of fish with some oil and butter from the pan.
6.  Transfer fish in hot sauté pan to hot oven to finish cooking for about 6-8 minutes.
7.   Just before serving, add capers and citrangequat/lemon juice to pan.  If necessary, add a little water to loosen the fond. Remove fish to serving platter, swirl juices and capers in pan and drizzle over fish.
8.   Arrange fried citrangequat/lemon slices on top of fish and garnish with chopped parsley.  Serves 2.

    Roasted Kale with Toasted Garlic

6 cups chopped kale, woody bottom stems removed
Minced dehydrated garlic (I used Penzey’s)

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. 
  2. Put chopped kale in a large bowl.
  3. Drizzle with as much EVOO as it takes to coat the kale lightly; season generously with salt, pepper, and minced dehydrated garlic.
  4. Use your hands to toss and distribute oil and seasoning evenly.
  5. Bake for about 10-12 minutes on a large sided baking sheet, tossing every few minutes so that the kale roasts evenly.  The kale should appear toasted in some places, but still emerald green in others.  Sometimes I turn the oven off and leave the door ajar, letting the kale sit in the oven until I'm ready to serve it, especially if the leaves were originally very large and tough.  Serves 2, with leftovers.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Other people's food

I love it when other people cook for me.  I especially love it when they do it out of love and for the pure pleasure of cooking for others.  Fortunately, I have several friends who cook, and cook well.  A long-time close friend who always makes my large gatherings a success makes several fabulous things, but I mostly enjoy her crab-stuffed mushrooms and her miniature croissant sandwiches with cranberry mayo, sliced turkey, Gruyere, and arugula.  She also makes a killer good remoulade sauce and some entirely delectable sauteed chicken livers.  She makes a lot of great food--and we've made a lot of great food together--but I first fell in love with her because of her mushrooms.

I have another friend who makes the best fried chicken you'll ever put in your mouth, and another who has unfailing instinct for excellent cheeses and even more excellent wines, but what I remember most about what she's cooked for me was a warm spinach salad with toasted walnuts and shallots, perfectly seasoned and perfectly dressed with EVOO and an excellent red wine vinegar. 

I had another friend who loved Diana Kennedy's recipes and produced excellent carnitas and a seriously addictive pumpkinseed dip.  Then there's my Indian friends, who have treated me on early chilly Saturday mornings to freshly made chappatis with fenugreek leaves and the best cups of chai I've ever had, cauliflower pakoras, samosas filled with spicy potatoes and peas, and my hands-down favorite Indian snack, pani puri.  Pani puri, for the uninitiated, are crispy, light little puffs made of semolina flour that you poke a hole in with your finger, then fill with lentil sprouts, cold seasoned potatoes, and a cool mint/coriander water spiked with ginger and chilies. You pop them in your mouth and all the flavors and juices explode into a delirious melange of pure joy.  I literally cannot stop eating them when they're offered.

I know I'm overlooking others' gifts of love and labor to me and will want to acknowledge them as I remember them.  For now, thank you to all of you who have taken such good care of me with your culinary gifts.  Keep it coming!

When I'm in the mood to spend money, and when I'm with a friend who appreciates good food and good wine, I like visiting high-end restaurants and having a leisurely spell to forage through their appetizer menus and wine lists.  I can count on one hand the amount of times I've actually ordered an entree in an upscale restaurant and can easily say that the most memorable experiences I've had have always included a flight of appetizers and wines.  If you want to see what a chef can do, eat strictly from the appetizer menu because that's where creativity lives.  I'll put my money on lots of small plates with a different experience on each every time.

Most well-trained waitstaff are going to have fun with this approach too.  I always let my server know what I'm planning to do.  Sometimes I let the chef choose the order in which the appetizers are served, and sometimes I choose.  I guess it just depends on my whim--and on the wine list.  If the restaurant I'm visiting has a killer wine list, then I let that guide me.  I will at times also depend on the staff and the chef to recommend the wine s/he thinks goes best with the appetizer I've ordered.  I have yet to have a negative reaction from waitstaff when you ask for their suggestions and help with pairings.  A server worth his or her salt in an upscale restaurant will not only know the menu and the wine list, s/he will have tasted most everything offered on the the menu (or knows someone there who has).  So utilize their skills and experience.  They enjoy showing what they know and they like their customers to have fun.

In recent memory, here's what has caught my attention:  A duck confit tamale with a glass of Bodegas Caro Cabernet/Malbec (Argentina) at Casa Vieja in Corrales, NM (I still dream about this tamale on the astral plane), a pecan-smoked beet salad with goat cheese and vanilla-cane vinaigrette and the Creole crabmeat cheesecake at The Palace Cafe in New Orleans.  At Stories at the Hyatt Lost Pines in Bastrop, TX, I'm totally enamoured of their Crab Salad, a cool, creamy tower of hearts of palm, roasted tomato, avocado and herb coulis (the staff chose Erath Vineyards Pinot Gris, Oregon) as well as their Mushrooms and Chive Crepes with local mushrooms and thyme cream (the staff chose Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California).

One of my favorite places to go for inventive appetizers is Olivia on South Lamar in Austin.  This restaurant has a remarkable and diverse wine list and a menu that's always changing because they depend on locally grown, seasonably available ingredients.  Recently, I had roasted golden beets, ricotta salata, toasted walnuts and an herb salad dressed with black truffle vinaigrette with a lovely glass of E. Guigal Cote du Rhone Blanc 2009 (France) that stunned me.  And here is where I encountered my first RED OLIVE.  I mentioned cerignola olives in a previous post.  They are a wonderfully plump, meaty and buttery fruit, but dyed red, they are eye-popping, gorgeous, totally believably red (in the same sense that hair color could be a believable blond) and not "a color not normally found in nature" red (like marschino cherries).  I thought at first that they might be red from soaking in some kind of bitters (I imagined a faint Campari-like flavor), but it seems they are dyed with E127 when processed in Italy.  E127, I discovered, is erythrosine, a commonly-used food colorant (for things like pistachio shells), which of course has been found to cause cancer in lab rats in large quantities.  Originally, I didn't think my consumption of two of these beauties would put me in much danger, but I'm now thinking of purchasing a 4 lb. jar, which could quite possibly put me in the Geiger counter range.  I'll keep you posted.

Prior to my last Red Olive Day at Olivia, I enjoyed more decadence than any human being ought to at Parkside on E. 6th in Austin.  There's a young chef there really knows how to use and balance acid and can knock your socks off with ingenuity.  The night I literally ate my way through most of the appetizer menu in 3 1/2 hours, I had the fried oyster BLT with avocado and green goddess aioli on romaine, the sweetbreads and veal tongue with cauliflower and cumin crisps, the marrow bones with a kick-butt, perfectly dressed herb salad and the blond pate with strawberry relish.  And that was just for starters, because we decided we couldn't leave untasted the lamb with sunchoke gratin entree.  The most memorable wines that evening were the Laxas Albarino 2009 (Argentina) and the Carlos Basso "Dos Fincas" Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec 2009 (Argentina), which sent me on an immediate hunt at my local Spec's, where I found them both.

Well, that's probably enough to get you started.  I'll think of more great bites--and will certainly be doing some more research in the near future!

May your tastebuds dance.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Forget dinner, I'd rather have hor d'oeuvres

Hor d'oeuvres have always been the most fun part of the meal for me.  Usually the only thing I will order in any upscale restaurant (more on that in a future post), they present opportunities for boundless creativity, surprise and amusement.  They can also be as easy or as complicated, as whimsical or as straightforward as you wish.  Last Saturday night's dinner party started with Villa Jolanda Prosecco (my go-to budget-friendly Italian sparkler that is bright and lemony) and was accompanied by three hor d'oeuvres.  They were all easy to prepare and fairly straightforward.  However, they do require planning ahead because some of the ingredients are only available in places such as Whole Foods and Central Market.

The first of the three were cerignola olives, touted as the largest olive in the world (and they easily are).  Cerignolas come in green, black, and RED (I'm referring to a vivid red, not reddish like a calamata) and they have pits.  I found mine at Central Market and chose the green variety, which have a firm but yielding flesh and a buttery flavor.  Just to make things interesting, I drained the brine, combined them with orange zest, fresh thyme leaves, cracked pepper, a whole clove of garlic and some EVOO.  I let them "cure" a little in the fridge for several hours, but they would have been better prepared the day before.

My second hor d'oeuvre was a little bean I've become addicted to after reading a 2010 Saveur article on readers' 100 favorite gourmet foods.  Lupini beans have turned this girl's head.  Salty, briny, nutty and very firm, they're just plain fun to eat.  You can eat them straight from the jar, or you can do as I did on Saturday night:  drain them of their brine.  Return them to a serving dish (I used an oversized martini glass) and drizzle them with EVOO, then sprinkle with a generous amount of cracked black pepper.  YUM!  There are several brands available (Cento and DeLallo are the two I've seen locally).  My guests really loved them.  They're best at room temperature.  I have a friend who eats them regularly and adds garlic along with the EVOO.  She says she has to have them pretty much every day.

The third hor d'oeuvre took a little more effort to prepare but it's a simple and versatile preparation.  It's also seriously delicious.  I developed this recipe last summer after looking for a fresh "salsa" for grilled halibut.  It's great on grilled tuna as well, or any firm-flesh fish.  But don't think of the typical salsa flavor profile for this--it goes in a different direction.  Straight to the Mediterranean.  Recipe follows.

I also want to include my recipe for Chicken Cacciatore (below), which I've been refining over the years.  I think I'm at the zenith with this one, but I'll wait for your comments.  I served the chicken with polenta enriched with plenty of butter and parmesan, but you could easy serve it with the pasta of your choice.  The main course was accompanied by a bitter winter greens salad seasoned with dried marjoram, basil and oregano, dressed with EVOO, cabernet wine vinegar and splash of balsamic, and finished with flake salt and curls of Pecorino Romano.  We also enjoyed a bottle of Castello D'Albola 2007 Chianti Classico (Italy), a lovely soft, dry red with just a few tannins, lots of cherry and fruit in the mouth, floral nose.  Lovely, full, and a perfect acid balance with the rich main course.  Gorgeous in the glass.  Thanks again, to one of my wine guys at Spec's.

One more note:  I really cheated on dessert.  After my original plans to make homemade meringues with strawberries macerated in Grand Marnier fell through due to the humidity, I caved in and served individual dishes of fresh strawberries with a small cup of warmed Nutella (add a little Frangelico to make it more adult) and Pepperidge Farm Black and White Milano cookies on the side.  Served with great coffee and cordials, it was an easy dessert and not as much as a cop-out as I feared, as evidenced by its quick disappearance.

Tomato, Caper and Parsley Condimento

          Serve this with grilled slices of French bread that have been brushed with olive oil...

2 medium tomatoes (of course, very fresh, very ripe summer tomatoes are preferable, but I used 2 large Romas)
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbs. finely chopped parsley (Italian flat-leaf is preferred)
2 Tbs. capers (non-pareil size)
1/2 tsp. salt (or to taste)
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup EVOO (make it a fruity one)

Cut the tomatoes into quarters, removing seeds and juice (reserve for another use if you wish).  Cut into 1/4 inch dice.  Mix tomatoes in a small bowl with remaining ingredients.  Serve immediately, or chill until ready to use.  Keeps for 3 days.

Wealthy Peasant
chicken cacciatore

3 lbs. bone-in chicken thighs, skin and fat removed
1 lbs. mild or hot Italian sausage (links cut in half)
Salt and pepper
1 lb. mushrooms, cleaned and roughly chopped
2 Tbs. EVOO
26 oz. jar marinara sauce (use a high-quality sauce such as Mezetta or Newman’s)
1 15 oz. can chopped fire-roasted tomatoes
2 to 3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
1 Tbs. anchovy paste (or use half of a 2 oz. tin)
1 cup oil-cured olives, pitted ***
¼ cup capers (capotes-size or larger)
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
1 tsp. dried rosemary
1 tsp. dried fennel
¾ tsp. dried thyme
3 cups dry red wine
1 med. onion, cut into ½ inch wedges
1 sweet red pepper, cut into lengthwise strips
1 green pepper, cut into lengthwise strips
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish
Asiago or parmesan cheese, freshly grated

      1.  Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2.     Place chicken thighs and sausage in a large gratin or oblong baking dish (approx. 10 X 13 inches).  Season generously with salt and pepper.  Roast in oven until meat is browned, about 20 to 25 minutes.
3.     Meanwhile, sauté mushrooms on medium-high heat in a medium-size sauté pan until well-browned, about 10 minutes.  Salt and pepper generously.  Set aside.
4.     Heat marinara sauce gently and add the canned tomatoes, garlic, anchovy paste, oil-cured olives, capers, crushed red pepper, rosemary, fennel and thyme.  Mix well.  Check for seasoning and correct salt.  Add sauteed mushrooms.  Continue to heat gently.
5.     Pour wine over chicken and sausage.  Scatter onion and red and green peppers over the top.  Return to oven to caramelize vegetables for about 10 minutes.
6.     Pour warm sauce over meat and vegetables.  Cover loosely with foil and reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.  Bake for at least another 30 minutes.  The chicken should fall off the bone when this dish is done.
7.     Garnish with fresh parsley and serve with polenta or pasta.  Pass plenty of grated cheese.  Serves 4.

***You can approximate the flavor of oil-cured olives by draining a can of small pitted olives and poaching slowly with 1 tsp. salt in1/3 cup EVOO over low heat for about 1 hour.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

On the esoterics of entertaining and such

Dear Reader, I know that you have barely caught your breath after my last post and by now, have noticed that I have a curious habit of attacking you with overwhelming intensity.  This is the true nature of the Taurus personality--we typically like to impress you with our stuff, be it intellectual, personal or material.  Fellow Tauri out there (and I know of several of you reading this), likely you'll agree with me when I say that we want to be adored and admired, but that curiously, we take our sweet time in seeing that other people seem to need smaller doses of us than we'd like to generously dole out.

I know you are all very busy--I am very busy--and would probably wish for less information to bombard you.  I would also like to continue to enjoy what I am doing with The Voluptuous Table and to keep it feeling like play instead of work.  So I have decided that I will post less often, probably on average of about two or three times a week.  This should be enough to maintain all of us in a good humor!

Tonight I am having a small dinner party and another couple will join my husband and me for several hours.  Along with making sure that the house is clean enough for company (oh? some of you do not have that problem?), I will be arranging the dining table and thinking about how to serve appetizers.  I have never been satisfied with simply offering good food to my guests.  For me, the food must not only be good, it must be beautifully presented.  And by extension, the setting in which the food is offered must also be inviting, appealing and amusing in some way.  So what to do when company comes for dinner?

Since the Taurus personality is so sensitive to environmental things, I always try to make my guests' experiences comfortable, pleasing to the eye, the ear, the palate, and especially (thanks to Venus rising) sensual in some way.  Food is sensual.  Wine is sensual.  Music and lighting are sensual.  What you surround yourself with in your home and display to your guests is sensual.  Spending time in a quiet, intimate setting with people you like and enjoy is sensual.  All of these things are also highly subjective to personal taste, so let your guests see who you are and give that part of you to them.  In short, make a memory that all of you will muse about later and perhaps feel a tiny bit sad that your time together has gone so quickly.

I enjoy looking at beautiful things.  I like to collect beautiful things.  I decided a long time ago not to save beautiful things for "special occasions."  Every opportunity I have to serve food in my home is a special occasion, especially if it is just a weeknight dinner for my husband and me.  People enjoy being made to feel special.  So use and display your beautiful things.  My secret?  A lot of my beautiful things come from thrift shops.  I love to spend my spare time picking through all those disorganized piles and dusty shelves.  It's the most wonderful treasure hunt in the world!  Another secret?  I pay almost nothing for my treasures.  But this kind of collecting can get to be an addiction--take it from one who knows--so pace yourself, or at least have plenty of storage space.

I have always enjoyed amusing my guests (sometimes this might include an impromptu performance of "O Mio Bambino Caro" or a clever Cole Porter tune if I have an accompanist!), and I will often amuse them by making the table an oppulent hodge-podge of pieces from several periods, lots of shimmer and light, small caches of flowers, long curls of ribbon, an unusual "party favor" for them to take with them.  One Easter, I had small nests of Spanish moss to gently cradle the most exquisite quail eggs at each place setting.  Often, I will have a surprise planned for larger gatherings (e.g., a belly dancer for a Moroccan party, a fortune teller for a 1920's ball, traveling minstrels, silent movies on a big screen outdoors, a pianist or cellist, someone to dramatically recite "The Raven" on Halloween).

Although I could continue to talk about what I have found makes my guests feel welcome, I want to make one final point: Never, never, never use paper or plastic plates, cups and utensils when company comes.  Not even for an appetizer party.  When guests come, it is always special occasion, so make them feel special.  Use cloth napkins (or if you must, very high quality paper ones).  Use your beautiful things, your china, your crystal, your heirloom silver from your great Aunt Emily.  Imagine how special that effort will make you feel.  It is certainly worth the extra effort and time.  Somehow, drinking an expertly mixed Perfect Manhattan or a dry martini out of an airline tumbler cheapens the experience.  And drinking a sparkling wine out of plastic flutes?  Vindaloo wouldn't hear of it!

My mother once gave me a tea towel that reads, "I am thankful for the mess to clean after a party because it means I have been surrounded by friends."  I can't wait for my guests to arrive!

Friday, February 18, 2011

More of a good thing

I apologize, but I'm on a curry kick.  Curries, whether Thai, Indian or Burmese, can be so different from each other and their flavor profiles so disparate that you could easily have a different curry every day for years and never experience the same curry twice.  Case in point: Raghavan Iyer's book, 660 Curries is just one person's compilation of various Indian curries.  In fact, Iyer subtitles his book "The Gateway to Indian Cooking."  So for me, the possibilities are mind-boggling, so I'm not going to bother to do the math.  Indian cooking alone incorporates a vast array of ingredients--probably and consistently the most ingredients on average per dish of any other cuisine (although I know some of you could show me mole recipes that take days to read).  Indian food, which we could never think of as dull and bland, also incorporates all the major tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter (and Indians would also argue there are two additional tastes, astringency and spice or heat). 

A fifth (or seventh) "recently discovered taste" is umami (translated as "deliciousness") and is present in things that are meaty, brothy, fermented, aged--usually protein-rich foods--but is also present in foods like grains, beans, and tomatoes.  Now, it's debatable whether or not umami is all that new.  If you follow food blogs, or watch cooking shows, or listen to NPR's The Splendid Table, you'll hear this word being tossed about quite a lot.  However, on a recent "Morning Edition" piece on NPR, what I learned is that Auguste Escoffier (the premier chef of Paris in the late 19th century) should really be credited with introducing umami because of Escoffier's simple but revolutionary creation of veal stock.  Suddenly, food didn't just taste good, it tasted like the best food you'd ever had in your life.

But I digress.  All of this was to point out that not only does Indian food possess incredible amounts of umami, the foods of many other Asian cultures do as well.  The recipes below definitely possess the fifth (or seventh) taste of umami.  They are both sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami in their own delicious way.  One thing they are not is spicy, so you can proceed confidently if you've shy palates in your house.  Accompaniments for these curries can be simple.  Try sliced cucumbers with lime or lemon juice, salt and fresh, thinly sliced jalpenos or serranos.  Or slices of peeled orange sprinked with cinnamon.  Or plain yogurt with fresh chopped mint.  Or mung bean sprouts with fresh lime juice, salt and chopped Thai basil or cilantro.

I'm sure your tastebuds will dance.

His Majesty's Chicken (from Hot and Spicy Southeast Asian Dishes, Dewitt, et al.)

     Another of my favorite curries, this originates from Indonesia.  Try it also with lamb.  It is mild with very little heat but has a hauntingly rich and exotic flavor profile.  Impresses new boyfriends and complacent husbands every time!

4 shallots, sliced
4 serrano or jalapeno chiles, seeded and chopped
2 Tbs. freshly grated ginger
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. black pepper
2 1/2 cups coconut milk (I often use 1 15 oz. can and extend with water)
2 Tbs. oil
2-inch piece cinnamon stick
1 tsp. lemon juice
4 whole cloves
4 cardamom pods
1 tsp. ground anise
1 3-lb. chicken, cut into 8 pieces, skin and fat removed (I often just use 3 lbs. thighs)
1 tsp. salt
2 ripe tomatoes, sliced
cilantro leaves for garnish

1.  In a food processor, blend the shallots, chiles, ginger, garlic, coriander, cumin, and pepper with 1/4 cup of the coconut milk to form a paste.
2.  Heat the oil in a skillet and stir-fry the paste, cinnamon stick, lemon juice, cloves, cardamom pods, and anise over medium heat, for a couple of minutes.
3.  Add the chicken and fry it for about 5 minutes, or until browned.
4.  Add the remaining coconut milk, salt, and tomatoes and cook over moderate heat until simmering.
5.  Reduce heat to maintain simmer and cover.  Baste chicken frequently with sauce, cooking for about 40 minutes.
6.  Serve hot with jasmine or basmati rice.  Garnish with cilantro.  Serves 4.

Cari (Vietnamese Chicken Curry)
         from The Classic Cuisine of Vietnam by Bach Ngo & Gloria Zimmerman

     Usually served with rice noodles as a party dish or with rice as a family meal, this is an authentic Vietnamese curry.  You can also serve this curry with French bread, which would not be unusual in Vietnam due to the occupation of the French colonial empire during the late 19th century.  Sweet potatoes, a primary ingredient here, are much-loved by the Vietnamese.  Surprisingly, this curry uses curry powder (and you can certainly use the version with which most Americans are familar--predominant notes being fenugreek and turmeric), easily purchased in most grocery stores, and orignally developed by the British to imitate Indian masala, or a blend of spices.

1 stalk fresh lemongrass or 1 Tbs. dried
3 1/2 tsp. curry powder (a good Vietnamese brand is Fortuna)
freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. sugar
4 tsp. salt
1 3 lb. chicken, cut into 8 pieces (each breast cut into quarters), or substitute all thighs (cut in two)
7 Tbs. oil
3 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes (you can substitute white potatoes)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

3 bay leaves
1 large onion, cut into wedges and sections separated
2 cups water
1 carrot, peeled and cut into 2-inch slices (I often use more carrot)
2 cups coconut milk, fresh or canned
1 cup milk or water (if you use canned coconut milk, you should use water)

1.  If using fresh lemongrass, remove the outer leaves and upper 2/3 of the stalks, then cut the remainder into 2-inch lengths.  If using dried lemongrass, it needs to be soaked in warm water for about 2 hours, then drained and chopped finely.
2.  Combined the curry powder, black pepper, sugar and salt with the chicken.  Let the chicken absorb these seasonings for at least 1 hour.
3.  Heat the oil and fry the potatoes over high heat, browning well on all sides.  It is not necessary to cook the potatoes completely, just brown them.
4.  Remove potatoes and set aside.  Pour off most of the oil from the pan, leaving about 2 Tbs. for cooking the chicken.
5.  Heat the remaining oil over high heat.  Fry the garlic for a few seconds, then add the bay leaves, onion, and lemongrass.  Stir briefly and add the chicken, searing lightly on all sides.
6.  Add the 2 cups water and the carrot(s); cover and bring to a boil.  Turn the heat down and simmer for 5 minutes; uncover and stir, then cook, covered, for another 10 minutes. 
7.  Add fried potatoes, coconut milk, and milk or water.  Cover and simmer for another 15 minutes.  Serve hot.  Serves 4 to 6.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

You are now leaving your comfort zone

OK, kids, we've been lolling around the culinary warm waters quite awhile now.  And now that I've reeled you in, I want to take you on a little diversion.  Sure, the familiar is great, it's comforting.  But it can also get tiresome if you're the least bit inclined to be a culinary adventurer, unafraid to color outside the lines, live large and think outside the Jack-in-the-Box.

I cannot remember when I was first drawn to the culture of India and its surrounding Asian cousins, but the pull is strong and deep.  For many years, I have been convinced that I have had another life in India, because the craving for the complex layers of spices and fiery chilies can only be satiated by totally immersing myself in about three weeks of intensive cooking this incredibly imaginative cuisine.  I could happily be a vegetarian if I had assistance with food prep because the varieties of vegetable curries, sambars and dals is endless.  And I could sing an aria about my love for basmati rice, a long-grained non-sticky rice which is wonderfully fragrant in a nutty, slightly floral way.  In fact, the Sanskit word for this kind of rice means "fragrant one," and it is the basis for many aromatic and delectable dishes such as biryanis and pulaos, not to mention kheer, the Indian rice pudding that is scented with saffron and cardamom and often studded with golden raisins and pistachios or cashews.  On board yet?

I will want to share my love of other Asian cuisines with you in future, but today I offer some of the foods I've been craving and preparing this week.  The dal recipe I've included is aromatic, mild and is one of the most simple to put together with common ingredients in your pantry.  But this is just the beginning, because dal (Sanskrit for "to split) is a generic term for any kind of dried split legume or whole pulse/bean/pea such as garbanzo (or chana dal), pigeon peas (or toor dal), or red lentils (masoor dal).  The combinations and varieties are virtually endless.

I've also included a recipe for spinach that incorporates the rich flavor of coconut and warm spices without the typical American association of sweetness.  Coconut oil is actually a very healthful cooking oil and is valued for its its antibacterial and antifungal properties (among other things) as well as its flavor.  In India, coconut oil is used mostly in the western regions, near Kerala (where the best bananas in the world are grown!) and the coastal regions, which rely on fish and seafood for protein in addition to the legumes that are a staple in most Indian diets.

The third recipe is for a silky, fragrant, and moderately fiery eggplant curry that actually originated in Sri Lanka, the island off the southeastern tip of India.  This is more of a "dry" curry than the ones you may have eaten that are typically more like a soup or stew.  But dry curries are popular on the main continent of India as well, so this will be an introduction for you.  I would highly recommend that you try any of these dishes with basmati rice.

What kind of wine could you serve?  Dry or off-dry whites with fruity, floral and aromatic qualities are what seem to harmonize best.  So my first pick would be a dry reisling, a dry gewurtztraminer or a gruner veltliner.  What I had last night was a blend of varietals called One 2007 (Alsace).  I can't describe this wine any better than it describes itself on the back label: "...a fusion of delicate floral aromas with fresh fruit flavors...crisp, dry, and well-bodied..."  In other words VERY YUMMY AND REFRESHINGLY CRISP.  Don't overchill this wine!  In fact, don't overchill any white wine.  I made the mistake of speed-chilling in my freezer (naughty, naughty) to too low a temperature.  It took a long time for this wine to open up and release its lovely characteristics, but when it did, it complemented my meal very well.  Thank you oh so very much, wine guy extraordinaire at Spec's!

Finally, there are two introductory cookbooks I would recommend if you too get bitten by the India bug.  The first is a small, hard to find and possibly out of print paperback called Curries Without Worries by Sudha Koul.  This is a great little book to start you out gently in the ways of Indian cookery.  The second is a more recent book entitled 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer.  It has a mind-blowing array of recipes that are very doable for the novice.  Both books are wonderfully helpful and charming to read.

Ap ka khana svadista ho!  That's Hindi for bon appetit!


 This dal freezes beautifully and is mildly spicy.  You can adjust the heat  by increasing or decreasing the chilies.  You can also gently toast the spices to incorporate a smokier flavor.

1 cup lentils (can use brown lentils, French lentils, red or yellow lentils)
6 cups water
salt to taste
3 ripe medium-size tomatoes, chopped (when I'm in a hurry, I use canned)
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbs. fresh ginger, finely chopped or grated (peel with a vegetable peeler first or scrub well)
4 Tbs. ghee (clarified butter) or oil
1 tsp. tumeric
1 tsp. cumin seeds
2 dry hot red peppers

chopped fresh coriander and plain yoghurt for garnish

Put all ingredients except coriander and yoghurt in a medium-size soup pot and bring to a boil on high heat.  Reduce heat to low and cook until lentils are tender.  This takes about 30 minutes, or more if lentils are older and tougher.  At this stage, you can use an immersion blender (or regular blender) to partially puree the dal.

When the dal is done, serve it will coriander and yoghurt along with rice or chapatis (Indian griddle breads similar to pitas).  Serves 4-6 people.

Vambotu Curry
            Sri Lankan Eggplant Curry  (from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian)

The beauty of this vegetarian curry is in the toasted spices that cling to the eggplant.  Coconut milk mellows the heat and an optional yogurt and cilantro garnish will cool the heat index down a bit.  Serve this curry with basmati or jasmine rice.  Make it as hot as you like—you can add up to 2 teaspoons of cayenne pepper.  To really get the full impact of this dish, grind your spices fresh (and separately) if you have a clean coffee mill.

1 lb. eggplant (this is lovely with any kind of eggplant: Japanese, Italian, white, or a combination of any)
2 Tbs. peanut or other mild oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
¼ tsp. ground turmeric
½ tsp. ground fennel
½ tsp. ground cayenne (or up to 2 tsp. if desired)
4 tsp. fresh lime or lemon juice
1 small cinnamon stick
15 fresh curry leaves (or substitute Thai basil if in season if you must)
1 small onion (approx. 2 oz.) peeled and cut into fine half-rings
¾ cup coconut milk from a well-stirred can
2 tsp. ground brown mustard seeds
Greek yogurt  (optional)
Chopped cilantro  (optional)

1.    Preheat oven to 475 degrees.
2.    Cut the eggplant into ½ inch slices, then cut each slice into wedges about 1 inch in size.  For larger eggplants, you will get between 4 to 8 wedges per slice, depending on the size of the eggplant.  Put the eggplant wedges in a large bowl and sprinkle with salt and pepper, then add cumin, coriander, turmeric, fennel, and cayenne.  Drizzle with 1 Tbs. oil and toss everything together until eggplant pieces are coated with spices and oil.
3.    Spread eggplant pieces on a large baking sheet and roast in oven for about 15 to 20 minutes.  The eggplant should take on a reddish tone and the spices should become very fragrant.  If it doesn’t seem toasted enough, turn on the broiler unit and finish toasting, watching carefully so eggplant doesn’t burn.
4.    Remove roasted eggplant from oven and return to bowl; drizzle with fresh lime juice and toss gently.  Set aside.
5.    Put the remaining 1 Tbs. oil in a large frying pan or wok (non-stick works best) and set over medium-high heat.  When oil is hot, put in the cinnamon stick and very quickly after that, the curry leaves.  
6.   Stir and put in the onion, continuing to stir-fry for about 2 minutes, or until onion has browned a bit. 
7.   Put in the seasoned eggplant, stirring and tossing for about 4 minutes.  
8.   Combine the coconut milk with the mustard seeds and pour over the eggplant.  As soon as the mixture starts to bubble, turn heat to medium-low and cook, uncovered, for 3 minutes, stirring gently now and then.
9.   Check for seasoning and correct for salt, cayenne and lime.  
10. Serve hot with rice.  To garnish, scatter with cilantro leaves.  Yogurt on the side will cool the spiciness if you desire.  Serves 3 to 4.

Coconut Spinach

Think nutty, creamy, and addictive.  The coconut oil adds great depth and the yogurt adds creaminess and tang.  Make this side dish as hot as you would like.

1 heaping Tbs. virgin coconut oil (such as Central Market Organics brand)
1/3 cup finely chopped onion
½ tsp. kosher salt
1 lb. baby spinach leaves
¼ tsp. plus 1 pinch garam masala (you can find this in an Indian grocery store
            or at Fiesta Market; alternatively, contact me for recipes to make your
            own fresher tasting, very easily)
1/8 tsp. (or more) ground cayenne pepper
½ cup Greek yogurt (you can strain any good quality plain yogurt with equally
            good results)
2 Tbs.  unsweetened dessicated coconut, optional  (this is not the same as Baker’s coconut, which is sweetened; you can find this at an Indian grocery store or Fiesta Market)

1.      Heat coconut oil in large skillet or wok over medium-high heat until rippling; add chopped onion and salt.  Saute until onions are slightly caramelized, being careful not to burn.

2.      Add spinach leaves and cover to create steam, lifting cover to stir spinach occasionally.  Continue to steam and stir until spinach is wilted and coated with coconut oil and onion mixture.

3.      Add garam masala and cayenne and stir well; add Greek yogurt and heat through, stirring well.  Yogurt will create a creamy sauce.  Garnish with unsweetened coconut, if desired.  Serves 4.