Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mowgli-Approved Dal Recipe

Toor dal, a/k/a pigeon peas, are our bean of choice for dal-making.

My husband Mowgli (not his real name, I mean come on, that would just be silly) is an infamously picky eater. In fact, he's so picky that I sometimes consider changing his blog name to "The Man Who Will Only Eat Five Things," but that's just a mite cumbersome. True, but cumbersome.

This July, the usual hot-washcloth-in-the-face effect has been blissfully absent, and yes I know I just jinxed it, sorry about that. But it's been close enough to soup-eating weather that yesterday morning, my thoughts turned to dal.

As I work full-time, and dal takes a couple of hours to make the way we like it, crock-pot dal seemed the way to go. I'd never tried it, but if you've read about my massive dosa failure, you know I don't shy from a kitchen challenge. Also, beans are cheap.

So without any futher ado, I present to you this blog's first practical offering: a Mowgli-approved dal recipe.

Get your crock-pot out; if you don't have one, get ye to a Target and shell out 18 clams like I did.

Put 4-6 cups of water in the crock (4 makes a thick dal, more makes it thinner). Wash 1.5 cups of beans (lentils, toor dal, moong dal, yellow split peas, whatever, doesn't really matter) and add them to the water.

Add the following spices:

1/2 t. turmeric
1 t. ground cumin
1/8 t. cayenne (or a couple of dried red chiles if you have them)
2-3 curry leaves -- totally optional, you won't miss them if you don't know what they taste like, and they're only available at Indian or international groceries.

Turn the crock on low and go to work, or sleep, or whatever. Mine went for 9.5 hours and was just fine.

When you get home, or wake up, turn the crock off and add about a teaspoon of salt. Remove the chiles and curry leaves if you added them earlier. If you're feeling fancy, add 1 teaspoon of garam masala and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. For the record, I did neither last night, though I had both on hand, and it was still delicious.

Start your rice, and get out a small frying pan, some cumin seeds, ghee (butter or oil will work, too) and an onion. Dice the onion and saute it over medium heat with a teaspoon of cumin seeds in 2 tablespoons of whatever oil you choose. You want the onions to turn out soft, but not brown, so count on at least ten minutes of cooking time. Add the onion mixture to the soup, stir it in, add more salt if you like, and enjoy over rice.

The onions should be just a bit more done than this.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Travelogue: The Czech Republic

Kutna Hora, more commonly known as "the bone church."

One of my oldest St. Louis friends is married to a guy who has a Ph.D in folklore, has written an award-winning play, and has spent a lot of time in the Czech Republic over the past 17 years. Naturally, he also has a blog about art and theatre and culture, which you should go visit. He’s also a founding member of Bad Soviet Habits, an arts collective that “seeks to reach new audiences by finding and promoting new work, new artists, and unconventional spaces and projects.”

He is an interesting, funny and gracious dude, and kindly answered my questions about his experiences in the Czech Republic while he was in the middle of an 8,000-hour work week.

When did you first go to the Czech Republic and why?

I flew in in January ’92, just after I graduated from college mid-year. Not the best time, either weather-wise or color-wise, to first arrive there. Gray gray gray, Although my friend Richard treated me to a crêpe (palacinka) on the street that was amazing. They're hard to find now.

I’d studied in Spain my sophomore year of college, and when I graduated I knew I wanted to travel again, learn another language (one different from the Romance family), to live outside of the U.S. I’d been very lonely in Spain, where I’d known no one to begin with, and in this case I knew at least one person. So it was very arbitrary in terms of destination, but it happened to fit many of my criteria. I think I was the only American in ’92, and probably one of the few English speakers who had difficulty landing a job teaching English.

How many times have you been back? Is it different every time you go? If so, how?

I lived there for 18 months the first time, traveled back twice to visit friends in the late ’90s, then started studying Czech formally at Charles University in Prague in advance of applying for grants. I lived there again while doing dissertation research in 2001, and have been back 2-3 times since then, most recently to perform in the Prague Fringe Festival this past May.

Czechs used to say that it would take one year out of communism for every year under communism for them to become a “normal” nation (their word) again. The country is changing quite slowly, but the city of Prague is very different. It has become a European capital – in the same way that New York City couldn’t be anywhere but in the U.S. but is hardly representative of the U.S., or Paris is completely French but not representative of French life.

Prague is European with a strong Czech accent. The clothing is much more European – it’s harder to tell what someone’s nationality is based on their dress. That’s a recent phenomenon, the turnover’s just been in the past two years, an ex-pat friend tells me.

Meanwhile Brno, the capital of Moravia (the second “state” that is the CR) is [undergoing] a much slower change. More Czech (or Moravian) with a hint of Italian investments. If you go to the little towns, things don’t look different at all. I expect the residents find it changed, but as a visitor, it doesn’t seem like much has happened.

From a trip with the in-laws last year, in a pub in the Prague neighborhood of Vinohrady near the Flora metro station. "Tasty."

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Leftovers From Life in Japan

In the kitchen of Yoshida House, circa 1990. This clown still owes Sam and me money.

Yesterday was full of errands that derailed my usual sensible eating schedule, and my lunch was late, substantial, and topped off with an ice cream sandwich (I'm a little addicted to those at the moment). So around nine last night, I found myself in need of a snack that would be substantial enough to serve as dinner without being heavy or unhealthy. In a scene straight from my teenage years, I opened the fridge, stood there with one hand on the door handle and the other on my hip, and gazed at the shelves, waiting for a sign.

It didn't take long for it to dawn on me that we have both yogurt and bread, and I happily grabbed them and found a suitable bowl. As I tore the bread up into lima-bean-sized bits and glopped yogurt on top, my mind drifted back to where I learned this combination: Tokyo. In a gaijin house in a suburb called Oizumi Gakuen, to be precise.

My gaijin house closet. That's a tiny fridge at the bottom left -- an important accessory if you want to count on finding your food where you left it.

"Gaijin" means "foreigner"; a gaijin house is a rooming house for non-Japanese, a place where nobody looks askance at tall, loud, rude people, beacuse everyone is tall, loud and rude, and taking delight in educating each other about the ins and outs of surviving in a foreign land. Ours had perhaps six 8' x 10' rooms per floor, each with a sink, and one toilet per floor. The telephone, shower and kitchen were communal. It was not glamorous, but it was fun, friendly, and most importantly, cheap. When my brother and I first arrived, there was only one room available, so we shared for a while. He still complains about the noise I made when I flossed my teeth.

Sam (not his real name) and I found that room thanks to a connection we'd made during a flight from Ulan Bator to Beijing. Our black market Trans-Siberian ticket had ended up stranding us in the capital of Mongolia, and we consequently found ourselves on the weekly flight to Beijing. It was an open seating situation, and the man next to us, who had just been filming highland games in the countryside, happened to have lived at Yoshida House, or knew the manager, I forget which. When he heard we were going to Tokyo, he scrawled a name and phone number on a scrap of paper.

So back to the yogurt and bread. I learned this combination from an Israeli man a few years older than me, fresh out of military service and engaged in the time-honored tradition of selling junky Thai trinkets on the street. I don't know if the dish is typically Israeli, or just something this one guy did, but I saw him eating it all the time in the communal kitchen, tried it myself once, and liked it enough that I still eat it.

Spot the dog in the garden at Yoshida House, circa 1990.

Just now, on a whim, I searched for Yoshida House. Not only is it still up and running, but it has a lovely website. It looks a lot cleaner than I remember it, and the people look classier, too. I'm glad it's still there; maybe I'll go back for a visit someday.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Photopost: Trans-Siberian Express

Roughly 20 years ago, my older brother Sam (not his real name) convinced me that going walkabout in Europe and Asia right after graduation would be just the thing to do. As usual, he was right.

These photos were taken by him during his journey west on the Trans-Siberian Express to meet me in Germany (he had just spent a year studying in Nanjing). I myself took that same train back east with him a few weeks later, and took these photos of his photos this morning.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

International Cocktail Hour

Last week I was grocery shopping with my husband Mowgli (not his real name) when he started prowling the liquor aisle. I knew what he was looking for: Hpnotiq. And no, that's not a string of typos, that's how some brand guru decided to spell it -- you can check out the bottle below for confirmation.

Now, if you've met Mowgli, you may know that his favored hard liquor is Wild Turkey. Being a man who's confident in his choices, he does not care one fig that others find his love of both Wild Turkey and Hpnotiq incongruous.

Despite the fact that it is bright blue and can accurately be described as tasting like a SweetTart, "Product of France" proudly adorns this blend of vodka, cognac and "exotic fruit juices." The stuff is so beloved by the patrons of our local grocery store that it was behind the service counter, from whence it is difficult to steal.

Back at home, we delivered it to the fridge. I cozied up to my Sunday night show with a small amount of the stuff, but was not enjoying it as much as I might due to the tart end of the SweetTart factor. Later, I perused the fridge for a mixer, and my gaze fell on the bottle of super-sugary Indian mango juice we had also picked up.

And thus the green concoction on the left was born. I like to think of it as the Shazam because that was the thought in my head when I realized how well the two liquids would go together, but I'm taking suggestions for names.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Japanese Prints in a loo in The Lou

It’s not every day that art makes me gasp, and before the 4th of July, it had never happened to me at a party – and certainly not in a bathroom.

A friend’s boyfriend, an artist himself, has two Toshi Yoshida prints hanging opposite his toilet. One is of a wisteria vine, and the other is a pink Mount Fuji. I was shocked not only by the unlikely placement, but by the sheer beauty of the colors, lines and composition. Unable to believe what I was seeing, I examined them for a good five minutes, oblivious to everything else.
Back in the kitchen, as I was helping myself to more chips and dips, I made a bad joke about how awful they were and suggested he give them to me. He declined my offer. The following week, still intrigued by them, I asked him a few questions about their history and what they mean to him – and why they’re in the bathroom.

The location has to do with his desire to keep them together as well as practicality – he has a lot of artwork, and they struck him as perfect for the bathroom. They came from an estate sale in upstate New York, where his family vacationed every summer. His father owned an antique shop in Daytona Beach, Florida, and would drive up with the family, but drive back in a U-Haul filled with that year’s plunder.

When his father passed away, he didn’t want much from the shop, but since he had always been attracted to those prints, he asked for and got them. Part of what he liked was their quietness, their amazing simplicity of color and design, the understated mastery that had so impressed Monet and his contemporaries. But he had also liked the way they transported him emotionally, allowing him to travel while standing still. He’s a traveling kind of guy, always up for new people and new experiences, and always enjoying coming home to everything in its right place.

He mentioned that to his dad, they were just merchandise, and that the shop was never terribly successful – people don’t go to Daytona Beach to buy antiques. Given a different location, the prints might have sold, and he wouldn’t have inherited them. And I wouldn’t have had that astonishing moment in a bathroom on the 4th of July.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Photopost: Parisian Chocolate Wrapper

In May, a friend went to Paris and kindly brought me back two kinds of chocolate. The dark niblets went straight into my snack drawer and were gone within the space of a week. The milk medallion with the Eiffel Tower on one side and the Arc de Triomphe on the other went into the enormous bag I carry back and forth to work and was promptly forgotten until Bastille Day rolled around this week.

Good thing, too, because had I eaten it right away, I might have been so eager to get at the chocolate that I wouldn't have noticed how amazing the foil packaging is. Enjoy, mes amis!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Mystery Shelf

One would think, with all the foreign-born ball players in my town this week, I'd be itching to write about how the Dominicans dominate pitching Zen or some such thing. But as I know next to nothing about baseball, and am feeling too lazy to commit to an hour of research, I'm going to, how do you say, bunt?

The photo above depicts what I like to call the Mystery Shelf. I know what many of these items are. For example, in the front row, from left to right we have a jar of mustard seeds, a tub of jaggery balls (unrefined, molassesy sugar in a sticky, hard lump), a lifetime supply of bay leaves, a vat of turmeric, and a tub of toor dal (split yellow lentils, for dal). Reclining across the turmeric and toor dal is a packet of urid dal (a very small dried bean) I bought a few weeks ago so I can take another stab at making dosa and (maybe) idli.

But that teeny-tiny sunshiny tub on top of the Nescafe tin? No clue. And those jars you can see the yellow tops of in the far right-hand corner? Um, yeah. That's why they're back there. I've taken the Magical Mystery Shelf Tour several times, opening and sniffing every single tub, jar and tin; if I don't know what something is, I put it in the back.

Now, I can hear the questions forming. "Why keep stuff if you don't know what it is?" "Is this the laziest woman alive?" But here's what you need to know: This shelf may be in my house, but it is not my shelf. It's my mother-in-law's. I've suggested, ever so gently once or twice, okay maybe four times, that we stow these things elsewhere until she returns to visit (read: returns to cook all day, every day, needing every item on the Mystery Shelf, and more). These gentle suggestions have been rejected and I have gracefully abandoned my campaign for more pantry space.

So I take occasional tours through the Mystery Shelf, and sometimes hold items up to the webcam during a video call for ID purposes, and look forward to the day when my Amma is here to show me what everything is for.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Fun Facts about Gordon Ramsay

Manhattan Kitchen, March 2009

One of my favorite post-work decompression methods is to watch "Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares" on BBC America. For the unfamiliar: It's a reality show wherein the world-famous chef, restauranteur and swearing machine troubleshoots a floundering restauarant, fixing it within a week and usually making people cry and/or swear right back at him in the process.

After watching it for a few months, I realized why I like the show so much: The man actually cares about these places. He wants to see them succeed, he knows how to fix them and he's willing to be hated in the process. He's also similar to Cesar Millan in his tough-love approach, but that's probably a separate post.

This morning, I went poking around to see what I could find out about Mr. Ramsay, and so, for your entertainment, I present to you my favorite fun facts about him.

1. He wanted to play football (soccer, to Americans) on a professional level, but injured himself badly enough that he had to switch careers.

2. He professes to hate the French even though he is Scottish (I'm assuming here that French-bashing is an English sport).

3. He once threw a food critic and said critic's dining companion out of one of his restaurants for insulting him (note: him, not his food). The dining companion happened to be Joan Collins.

4. The animals he raises for food purposes are named after other celebrities -- mostly chefs, but also Trinny and Susannah of "What Not to Wear," who were said to be amused at having pigs named after them.

5. He nearly died when he fell off a cliff into icy water in Iceland while filming a segment about puffin hunting. I like to think a puffin pushed him.

6. He was unseated from his number-one position on the Top Gear leader board by Simon Cowell. (Background: Top Gear is a British car show, one of the featured segments of which is interviewing a celebrity and then putting them in a "reasonably priced car" and sending them around a track to see how fast they can go. The results are recorded on a leader board, and a good part of the fun is seeing who's faster than whom.)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Photopost: Indian Watermelons

When we were in India last year, I was cameraless and borrowed my father-in-law's (Naina's) digital jobbie, both because I am a lifelong photo-snapper, and I like to play tourist. Whenever we returned to the house, Naina would take the memory stick and run it down to the corner photo shop to have my shots printed. The first time this happened, I was really confused about his hurried departure, then delighted when he turned up a short time later, paper bag of prints proudly in hand.

A few days into this routine, it came to light that he and the photo shop guy had been discarding some of my street shots, thinking they must surely be mistakes since they were so mundane. I explained that I wanted to be able to show my friends and family all aspects of Indian life, and that street life holds all kinds of clues to a culture.

And that's part of the story of the photo above. The other part is that I was walking with my husband Mowgli (not his real name) near the stadium when we came across this stack of watermelons and baskets. I recall being in a hurry, hungry to see as much as possible that day -- it was one of our last chunks of free time. I still regret not going inside that shop to take shots of tropical fruit stacked into pyramids, and I still remember being impressed by the neatness, volume and variety I could see from the street.

I'm still hungry to see more of India, and next time around, I'll take my own camera, and take more time.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Homosexuality Legalized in India

Late last week, after 149 years of living in fear of legal prosecution thanks to a colonial-era law, Indian homosexuals scored a huge victory: India decriminalized homosexuality.

Here's a short list of things I'm looking forward to following this development:

- Reading about couples who can relax a bit after years or decades of being forced to keep their relationships under wraps

- The legalization of gay marriage in India (I can dream, can't I?)

- Serious Bollywood plotlines about gay couples (there was a farcical one last year)

- The extinction of stories like this

- Being able to use a more suitable photo for a post on this topic instead of the one I scrounged up from last year's trip

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Love Story, Starring Goat Cheese

"If you'd feel comfortable, you could just send us a check."

That might be all that's needed to convey the adoration I feel for the extraordinarily nice lady who sold me the one of the best chunks of cheese I've had in the U.S. But there is a bit more to the story.

Friday was a day off for me, thanks to the 4th of July holiday weekend, and I took the opportunity to reestablish the farmers market habit I'd let slide yet again. The parking gods bestowed a meter-free spot upon me, and I made my way to the stalls, armed with a 20 dollar bill.

Taters, maters, cukes and zukes, check. Peaches look nice, great, I'll take two. Sure, may as well pick up a pint of blueberries for a buck. Might as well wander the other leg, see what's going on there, see how many people I can spot drinking beer at 10 in the morning (three, maybe four).

Halfway down the northeast leg of the "H" that forms the market, there stood a lady dressed in a long-sleeved, flower print dress and apron, a bit of black lace covering her bun. But it was the incongruity of the latex foodservice gloves that stopped me in my tracks.

She smiled brightly and said, "Would you care for a sample?"

I set down my bags. "Yes, absolutely."

She took me through the options, and I decided on the Fleur de la Vallee (literally, "flower of the valley," a hard aged cheese). It was magnificent. Nutty, salty, amazing texture, and I immediately knew I had to have some to take home. When I reached for my cash, though, I realized I didn't have enough left; this is not cheap supermarket-brand cheese.

"We take credit cards and checks, too."

"Ah great, here's a card."

That's when she discovered the wireless card machine wasn't working. It just kept saying it was dialing. She went out from under the iron awning, saying it sometimes interfered with the transmission.

She kept trying, apologizing intermittently as she excused herself to offer samples and answer questions. I was perfectly happy to watch the river of passersby as I waited -- it's half the reason I go to that particular market. We chatted a bit about the cheese, and I realized as I was standing there that this was the Amish goat cheese I'd read about recently and had been wanting to try.

Finally, she fixed her kind eyes on mine, uttered the words at the beginning of this post, gave me a business card, and sent me on my way. I thanked her for trusting me as I put the hunk of cheese in my bag.

And now I feel compelled to urge you, dear readers: If you live in the St. Louis area, do yourself a favor and seek out Baetje Farms goat cheese. They're at Soulard Farmers Market every weekend, as well as other markets, wineries and at least one restaurant. Their motto is "Committed to quality from start to finish," and if you consider customer care as said finish, I can tell you that they are deeply true to their motto.

And now if you'll excuse me, I have a check and a thank-you card to write.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Citygarden Opening Day

Yesterday was the first day that our brand-spankin'-new, $30 million sculpture park and garden was open to the public. It is lovely, and it was a joy to stroll around it, even though I could not stop myself from wondering how many schools could be repaired with that money. I don't mean that as political commentary -- I'm no good at that -- it's just an illustration of a guilt complex in overdrive.

Over half of the 23 pieces are by artists born outside the U.S., and all but two of those are from Europe, with France being the dominant country of origin. I was hoping for some African or Indian or Malay pieces, but it seems Japan and Taiwan will have to do. In case you're interested, I'll identify the pieces by American artists at the very bottom of this post, in tiny letters, just for fun.

I like the tranquility of this piece, and I wonder why the man felt the need to take the cat along. Did he intentionally create a captive audience, or did the cat get in the boat voluntarily because it loves the man?

The cat's face, which struck me as creepy in its humanness.

I have no idea why I like this piece so much, but hey, that's the magic of art. It's the only one I read an explanation of, so I can tell you that the part at the top is meant to be an opening seed or "a mouth that opens to the sky, like a baby's first cry."

Pinnochio welcomes you to the All-Star game!

My very favorite piece; again, no idea why, but as it turns out, the artist is one of my people: a polack.

Confronted with a gorgeous new sculpture park, a local naturally takes the opportunity to have her dog piss on it.

The obligatory damsel in distress; while I'd rather see a naked woman in a position of strength, I am happy to see that she's been eating well.

Two bunnies avert their eyes from a derelict van -- and, as it happens, the much-reviled Richard Serra piece that you can't quite see in the next block up. As I was walking around the bunnies, a passerby refused to respond to my cheerful "good morning." He must be a truly woeful person to be able to maintain a scowl in the presence of giant white bunnies. Poor guy. Maybe the bunnies will work their magic on him if he keeps taking that route to work.

Pinnochio is the only American piece depicted. I didn't plan it that way, I swear!