H Mart is officially our weekend grocery jam. We love the bustle, the affordable prices, and the variety of, well, everything. My favorite section is the fish section; a sprawling corner occupied by tanks, ice kegs, and more square footage of counter space than any of my apartments. Here I regularly find genus of fish only read about in cookbooks – porgy, monkfish, skate wings, striped bass, et al. Recipes flit around in my head while assessing options. Professor X is usually doing his point and comment routine. It also takes me at least two passes, muttering “Ooo…maybe,” to come to a decision. After all, you must be prepared when you get to the counter since there is no number and queue system. One enters the fray, kilt off and howling.

A few weekends back, Professor X pointed at a selection of headless kingfish bodies in the clean-it-yourself section. We were pleasantly haunted by a recent Sri Lankan fish curry from Sigiri, so he suggested we try a Kerala version at home. I prodded specimens with tongs while he Googled a viable recipe. At one point, he asked what is becoming a regular question:

“You know how to do this, right?”

I assured him that processing the fish would be a simple matter of water and two good knives. Fish in cart, we moved on. However, the Lunar New Year 2008 whole tilapia incident started rattling its chains from the dregs of memory. I pushed it aside.

We didn’t get around to preparing the fish curry that day. However, I knew that I should at least clean it and cut it into steaks as soon as possible. Out of the fridge and removed from the spell of H Mart, the kingfish took on an unexpected squick factor. I cautiously unfolded a dorsal fin to realize that it was fiercely spiny, and firmly attached to the body. I opened the slit cavity to find innards and goo. The scaleless skin was too reminiscent of mahi mahi, which makes me gag, or, worse, human skin. I pressed on and thanked the gods that (1) it didn’t have a head and (2) Professor X was engrossed in a journal paper in the next room.

Usually one turns to one’s partner or spouse when in need of help. His question – “You know how to do this, right?” – is also his release from responsibility. It’s an understanding we’ve had since the beginning of our relationship. The tacit statement relieves him from the burden of blame should things go tits up. And, as it is with me and fish, they did.

I discovered that fish fins are held on by REALLY STRONG muscles that utterly defy a tidy slice, and, instead, take half the flesh and nauseous flaps of skin with them when removed. Similarly, fish vertebrae are neither delicate nor brittle. Unlike chicken bones, they don’t sever with a quick whack of the cleaver. Furthermore, the meat is easily mushed. So, as I hacked through the seven inches of torso with a less than razor sharp cleaver in the name of creating steaks, it ended up looking more like the blobs you get in a poke bowl or tartare except with bones and even more bits of that horrific skin. I pondered the mess – wondering how Shawn makes it look so effortless – and lamented our building’s non-smoking policy. I decided to err on the side of no waste, so put it in a bowl for the Professor’s consultation around dinner time.

“So…hey, do you still want fish curry for dinner tomorrow,” I asked.

“We aren’t having it tonight,” he replied

“No. I can’t look at it just yet after cleaning it.”

“Oh no. What happened?”

I produced the bowl of fish mash, and peeled back the plastic wrap. It smelled weird. It looked even worse. Professor X didn’t exactly gag, but the choked tone in his “No no no no, sweetie. We can’t eat that. Please throw it away. Don’t try to be rustic.” revealed a great deal.

I’ve since admitted that I’m out of my league beyond salmon and shrimp. We’ve also agreed to pay the extra cents per pound to have the experts at the counter do the cleaning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Now that we’re settled in to a semblance of daily life, I present a collection of small epiphanies regarding life on the East coast.

1.) I’ve been doing pasta wrong my entire life. My mom taught me how to boil noodles when I was a wee lass; instructing me to cook it until al dente at the stove on Heil Dr. She explained that it meant “to the tooth” and described it as “having a sort of bite.” Once out on my own, I was frequently frustrated by the difference between box instructions and the time it actually took to cook until “stick to the fridge” doneness. Ten to twelve minutes, my ass.

I’ve since nailed down my pasta home game, and was further validated by similarities with wonderful dishes at reputable Italian restaurants in Chicago. Then we moved to the East coast. Suddenly, all the pastas are showing up underdone. People wolf it down like it’s the best thing to happen to them. Professor X and I politely eat, then loudly complain in private about stomach problems for the next 24 hours.

Inspired by these experiences, I recently cooked some pasta shells according to the package instructions. The test piece emerged soft, yet retained that small sliver of “bite” in the middle – better than restaurant al dente, but not as pliable as usual. I figured it would be okay, but it was two shades shy of horrible. Since I refuse to adapt to undercooked pasta, my way, which is apparently overdone, will remain. At least it doesn’t smell like wet dogs and resemble mashed potatoes like the pasta in Paris.

2) We’re still working out the kinks in our grocery routine, but H-mart is our weekly go-to so far since we’re smitten with the place. Unlike many specialty grocery stores, H-mart is designed to be a one-stop shop. You can get paper towels at a reasonable price, as well as staples like milk, flour, and sugar. The store is clean. The produce, meat, and seafood are gorgeous and affordable. There’s also a bakery – Tous Les Jours – where you can pick up a coffee and macarons for the ride home. Do try the lemon yuzu “beauty-ade;” a bracing drink of yuzu juice, lemon ginger tea concentrate, and San Pellegrino topped with a lemon. Not entirely sure how it contributes to beauty, but I wake up craving it in the middle of the night. Should you arrive hungry, H-mart houses a banging food court too. Professor X likes the mapo tofu from the stall closest to the vegetable section.

3) Autumn seems to fall quickly on the East coast. One day it’s all swampy cicadas tomato and basil. With the flip of a switch, it’s slanting light crickets plums and squash. I’m accustomed to commercial venues prematurely pumpkin spice-ing since fall has become a highly marketable season. However, I couldn’t fathom either a hot drink or a jacket until mid-October in the Midwest. Here, it’s definitely on the wind.

That said, the Edison Target is a shonda. So is the Burlington Coat Factory. WHY ARE THERE NO COATS? Did I miss something since fall turns early here?

4.) After slow experimentation, I’m pleased to announce that I most likely did not develop a mid-life shellfish allergy. When Professor X and I moved to Oregon, we were excited about being so close to the Pacific and all the expanded seafood options that came with it. It was fine for a year or so, but my system took a turn that climaxed on my 40th birthday. After a pleasant lunch at Local Ocean, I suddenly knew the answer to Imodium’s existential query – “Where will you be when diarrhea strikes?” (On I5 heading north to Depoe Bay.) I suffered the entire weekend, and in varying intensities thereafter – definitely every time I ate seafood – for four months. After a particularly scary moment that involved sweating, vertigo, and a tingling sensation on the inside of my mouth, I went to the doctor. She found nothing, and, after latching on to the fact that I’d been to India, diagnosed travel related IBS. My acupuncturist in Corvallis, however, gave me some herbs to treat parasites. I improved slowly over a few weeks, and could eventually eat outside the house without incident. Seafood remained a problem, so I just stopped ordering it. Since the ocean’s bounty was too expensive in Oregon to cook at home, the problem was temporarily settled.

I refused to accept that I’d developed a seafood allergy, so I started tests with East coast seafood almost immediately upon arriving here. Tuna and salmon rolls at Haruka were delicious, and devoid of disturbance. I tried rigatoni alla diavola at Stella 34. There was a small, queasy moment on the train home, but it was definitely the undercooked, er, al dente pasta; not the lobster. Atlantic salmon from H-mart was fantastic, so I threw caution to the wind and bought shrimp to make a red curry. Professor X sang its praises, and I continued my life incident free. Oysters in the half shell will be my final test, but for now I have concluded thusly:

It’s not me. It’s you, West coast.

 

 

 

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Basil – ready to GTF out of town.

Is it still “great” if there is a second one?

We left Chicago for a life on the west coast in late November 2013. I counted that drive – five ten-hour days as the sole driver and avec un chat – as one of the most bat shit insane things I’ve ever done. Unfortunately, the Western Lands are not our forever home. After three and a half years, we never entirely fit in to the idyllic whitopia of the Willamette Valley. The weather in Oregon is also horrible, as hard as that may be for some to believe. So it was that we undertook a second migration; coast to coast, avec deux chats, and I remained the sole driver. No one is ever allowed to comment on my driving ever again.

Professor X and I learn from our mistakes. Unlike last time, our days were no more than six and a half Google hours. We stopped every two hours. Snacks were a reasonable selection of dried fruit, almonds, whole-wheat crackers, and sweet things. We ate breakfast every morning. The cats lounged in upgraded carriers with cooling pads. Daily doses of gabapentin calmed their nerves. Before we knew it, we were in New Jersey.

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Minerva – Little Miss Ride-or-Die – in our new apartment

What have we done here so far? Gorged on the buffet that is civilization.

Contrary to popular culture’s idea of the state, as well as my own, New Jersey has just about everything under the sun if you’re willing/able to drive. Our particular location seems to be about 20 minutes in any direction from all those things. Locally, we have a peculiar number of Peruvian restaurants, as well as a notable Caribbean influence among the other dining options. New York City – known around here as “The City” – is also a short train ride away should we require its services. We’ll probably get there once a month, maybe every other once the semester starts.

In other news, my kitchen is huge. The oven temperature is consistent and correct. There’s more work space than we know what to do with. It even has a pantry!

Perhaps posting will be more consistent in the future. Maybe I’ll be too busy. We’ll see.

Professor X got his ten minute warning five weeks ago when a GP hypothesized early COPD or emphysema based on spirometric test results. She gave him a choice; quit smoking or cart around an oxygen tank in the next five years. That amount of time doesn’t even put him at 40, so we both quit right there to her great surprise. A few weeks later – still sans cigarettes – the pulmonologist decreed a less dire prognosis of asthma. Professor X is now on a cortico-steroid inhaler and seeing great results.

I won’t regale you all with the infinite complexities of quitting. Nor will I effuse inspirational about the myriad benefits. Additionally, I do not have any advice for the best method to quit. And finally, please reserve your congratulatory statements and well-meaning platitudes. Those especially make me want to smoke, even more than a cold glass of white wine on a warm night or numismatics.

Instead, I will simply state this: everything is really salty. Whether it’s home cooking, restaurant food, or microwaved frozen from TJ’s, most things strike us as burn-your-tongue salty since we’ve quit. With this in mind, if I have ever given a precise measurement for salt in a recipe of my own, you should probably adjust it to your liking. In fact, I hope you have already. Similarly, I present this recipe for perfected puttanesca with some trepidation. Puttanesca has many salty items in it: olives, capers, anchovies. Just when I thought I had replicated the jar of manna from Carfagna’s, it is likely that the variables will need to be tweaked again.

Get Thee:

1/2 box of spaghetti or bucatini

1 tbsp olive oil

5 cloves of garlic, peeled and diced

2 oil-packed anchovy filets, chopped

24 oz can of plain whole plum tomatoes, roughly diced in hand*

1 tsp oregano, dried

1/2 tsp basil, dried

14 pitted kalamata olives, chopped

1 tbsp. capers

pinch of red chile flakes

1/2 tbsp butter

salt to taste

Assemble:

  1. Start your water for the pasta. Add 1/2 tbsp of salt to 6 cups of water, and set to boil over high heat. When the water is at a rolling boil, add 1/2 box of preferred pasta. I’m a Barilla girl, despite the company’s issues.
  2. While the pasta cooks, heat olive oil in a separate pan. Add garlic and anchovy. For the anchovy averse, please don’t leave it out. Just put on some fuckin’ pants and trust me on this. It will dissolve, leaving only an umami je ne sais quois.
  3. Add the whole plum tomatoes diced in hand*. (That does not mean that you should go using the palm of your hand as a cutting board.) Take a tomato and roughly cut off small pieces over the saute pan, minding your fingers. The juice and flesh will collect in the pan. Repeat with the rest of the tomatoes in the can. Reserve remaining liquid. Bring to a boil, and turn down heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes. Smash the tomato chunks with a spoon while stirring. If it’s too dry, add some of the liquid in the can. Also note: Refrain from buying diced tomatoes to save time. Due to added calcium chloride, they won’t dissolve at all. Whole tomatoes do not have this additive, and thus behave as you expect. Who knew?
  4. Add dried oregano and basil. Stir for another minute or two.
  5. Add olives, capers, and red chile flakes. Turn off heat. Stir to combine.
  6. Once pasta is done, separate 1/2 cup of cooking liquid from pot and drain the rest in a colander.
  7. Add pasta to sauce in pan. Stir. Turn heat to medium, and add 1/4 cup of cooking liquid. Stir. You’ll notice the sauce thin out a bit, then contract again. If it isn’t too thin, add a little more cooking liquid and stir. Add the bit of butter and stir until the mix bubbles a bit. I smugly avoided this step for decades despite reading about it in reliable cooking sources. Mea culpa. As fussy as it seems, it creates a nice shiny, supple sauce that covers all the pasta.
  8. Taste the pasta, and, finally, add salt as needed.

I recently met up with an old friend who just so happened to be in New Jersey at the same time as me, and the topic of words came up. Communication is his job in the Coast Guard. He wrote a sci-fi novel, and plans on turning his current blog into a collection of short stories once he retires. We’ve known each other for many incarnations, and he remembers a time when my writing was honed like a fine knife.

“I don’t know, man,” I muttered while unconsciously gnawing the callous on my left pinky between sips of bourbon. “Ever since I started playing cello, the words have slowly gone quiet. It’s mostly pictures and sounds in my head these days.”

Professor X and I have been in a constant state of travel recovery since Christmas. Perhaps the perceived extra strain is simply time passing over our meat sacks. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that getting anywhere from Corvallis, OR by plane is a massive schlep. Either way, I have the perpetual sensation of being “just back.” By the time I restock cat food and paper towels, we’re off again. In such a state, I recently decided to make cheesecake for no particular reason.

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The Cheesecake

My recipe is by no means mine. My Grandma Barbera tinkered endlessly with one from the back of a Philadelphia Cream Cheese box to get to the process currently detailed in my handwriting on a piece of 3×5 notepaper.  During that particular spring/summer, she greeted us with at least one cheesecake for our feedback every time we visited. The final two contenders were towering monuments to dairy. We each had several slices during the taste test; judging height, texture, appearance, and degrees of lemon since this should be a plain cheesecake enhanced with a touch of lemon, not a lemon cheesecake. It was such a close call that grandma retained and eventually passed down both recipes. Only one remains in my archive, but the original with both is enshrined in a frame backed by one of her old dish towels somewhere at my mom’s house. I only know that this is the one I preferred from that sunny day of familial dairy bloat.

I made The Cheesecake at least twice a year for nearly decade. A former suitor of some importance loved the dessert. When we parted ways in 2006, The Cheesecake was retired. It also didn’t help that my springform pan was at least as old as I was, and started leaking while in the oven. When I set about my task last Friday, I realized that the pan was a longtime gone. You can’t make The Cheesecake without one, so off to Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

While there, I remembered that it’s baked in a bain marie; a fun tip not mentioned in the recipe, but key to The Cheesecake and a variable tested on at least one visit to grandma’s house. None of my baking pans will accommodate a 9-inch springform, so I picked up what they’re calling a “lasagna pan.” (Ed note: Who the fuck are people feeding a lasagna that big to? You could feed a small Sicilian village for a week with something that size. Sweet baby Jeebus.) Decades of jerry rigging a bain marie suddenly fell away. I beamed resplendent with thoughts of what one can do with even a modest operating budget.

Once home, vertiginous jet lag crept in. I downed a fistful of crackers with some seltzer while perusing the recipe, and was struck with a sense of omission; omission of the important details and nuances my grandmother researched that made this cheesecake “The Cheesecake.” Crunching away, I wondered why it’s been 11 years since I last made it.

Get Thee

For the crust:

1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs

3 tbsp sugar

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/2 stick of butter, melted

For the filling:

3 x 8 oz packs of cream cheese

1 1/4 cups sugar

6 eggs, separated

1 pint of sour cream

1/3 cup flour

2 tsp vanilla

rind of 1 lemon

juice of 1/2 lemon

Assemble:

-Preheat oven to 350 F, or 375-400 F if it’s my craptastic oven. Set cream cheese on counter to warm to room temperature.

-For crust, combine all ingredients and press 3/4 of mixture into greased pan. I didn’t see that 3/4 part until after the mix was in the pan. Honestly, it was just fine. I also wondered what the hell grandma did with the other 1/4 since she was loathe to waste food.

-In a large mixing bowl, beat cream cheese on low speed until soft. Gradually add sugar until light and fluffy. Check the bottom of the bowl to make sure no lumps are hiding. Cream cheese in pernicious stuff.

-Beat in egg yolks, one at a time.

-Stir in sour cream, flour, vanilla, lemon rind, and juice until smooth.

-In another bowel, beat egg whites until they hold stiff peaks, then fold into cream cheese mixture. The mix will expand significantly, so don’t skimp on the bowl size.

-Pour mix into prepared springform pan. Place that pan into a “lasagna pan” (11×14 rectangle) and fill with an inch or two of hot water. This is the all important bain marie step.

-Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until top is golden. Realize 10 minutes in to baking that you forgot to add the sour cream. Call mom. Post on Facebook. Receive no answers.  Eventually pass the hell out on the couch because your diurnal rhythms are hopelessly out of whack. Don’t forget to set an alarm, lest you burn the house down because you slept through a cheesecake.

-Turn off heat and allow to cool in oven for 1 hour. Contemplate whether or not you’re getting sick while chugging more seltzer.

-Remove cake, and let cool to room temperature. Remove pan collar. Chill overnight or for a minimum of 2 hours before serving. Discover that The Cheesecake is just fine, if not better, without the sour cream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another summer is on its way out. Even in Oregon, where locals continue to insist it never gets hot enough for air conditioning, I find summer’s cheery disposition has overstayed its welcome shortly after my birthday in mid-August. I crave silence, darkness, and cool.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that Professor X and I are not outdoorsy, and we don’t have a yard to maintain. I’ve imagined both scenarios though, and concluded that a person has to like summer in order to enjoy those activities. The lack of humidity here certainly helps, but, as one of my uncles is fond of saying, “I don’t stick my head in the oven and think, ‘Ah, that’s nice!'”

It could also be due to the fact that Professor X is not a vegetable eater, and finds summer fare unsubstantial. If someone serves him caprese, there better be a burger nearby. Chaat is also not a home cooking pursuit where we live. These things put a kink in what remains of my kitchen rhythm.

Aside from calling in delivery and holing up in the AC, the summer was about remembering the Midwest; where July smothers you like a hug from a menopausal aunt, and people generally take no bullshit. My mom discovered a hidden gem of a Nepalese/Tibetan restaurant in Gahanna, OH. We went directly to Himalayan Grill from the airport, and gorged on momos and khasi ko sekuwa. On that same trip, we stopped for an unplanned 24 hours in Chicago where we hit up Bistro Bordeaux in Evanston. (Thanks, United Airlines!) The roast pork with prunes on my list of cooler weather weekend projects. We also grabbed coffees, and a selection of pastries from La Boulangerie in Lakeview for the train ride north from our hotel. The El trundled through its stops, and it was all suddenly too familiar – one hand on a hanging strap, hot coffee in the other, the wish for a third so you can eat that petite tarte au citron without losing your balance.

Our landed friends are hauling in the last of their summer harvests, canning, and planting their winter crops. The gigante beans that I co-grew with a friend are a mixed result. My earth is poisoned from a long gone walnut tree, so my four plants produced one pod with two beans; not even enough to trade for a sick cow. A’s farmlet is more fertile, so she got enough for ten sick cows, maybe a healthy one. She’s moved on to an Italian cabbage called”January King.” The English consider it tastiest at the market.

I’ve got chilis to string, but the harvest Professor X and I hope to reap are more administrative. His PR visa will have some kind of outcome in the next few weeks. If the outcome is good, we can start planning other aspects of our life. The proposals he spent much of summer writing will hopefully bear fruit come winter. Needless to say, it’s been a hell of summer and our stomachs are shot.

 

 

 

 

 

Robata Grill and Ramen Noodle popped up on Corvallis’ river strip this past spring with much anticipation. Local mutterings place it within the Sada lineage, but other sources point to some guy named Steve. Its elevator pitch was ramen variations and grilled meat on sticks. It had our attention. What actually conspired across three visits proved otherwise.

Visit 1: Professor X and I were out one Thursday during the quarter, prowling for a place to eat dinner. As of parking the car, we still hadn’t decided. We noticed the lights on at Robata as we crossed Monroe, and it was settled.

The space formerly housed grumpy fish man; the only location for properly fresh fish in our fair town. The peripheral tables were half full, and a few locals hung out at the bar. I noticed a few “fuck my life” expressions as we were led to our booth. At the time, I figured it was because those parties had kids. After all, the servers seemed to be attentive and busy. We were seated next in line to a family of four, who I noticed spoke French.

Our meal unfolded uneventfully, if not better than expected since they had only been open for a week. We ordered. Food came. Waiter was attentive and a bit green, but he held it down better than his cohort. Professor X had lamb donburi, and I got Nagasaki ramen (pork broth with seafood). We split some gyoza.

Impressions from that night:

  1. The gyoza were clearly frozen together when they went in the oil, as they came out to us like a little fried raft. They were okay, but the mix lacked seasoning and the gyoza dipping sauce needed extra soy to fortify it.
  2. Professor X wolfed down his bowl of lamb donburi, and proclaimed it “pretty good.” A bowl of rice and meat rarely fails to please him.
  3. I was a little disappointed by my bowl of ramen because it had a metric shit ton of sauteed cabbage in it. Veg usually acts as low cost-point filler, but there was plenty of seafood. Why all the cabbage then? Needless to say, the broth to solid ratio was skewed in favor of the latter.
  4. And speaking of broth, it needed encouragement. It had the slick mouthfeel you’d expect from the cloudy pork variety, but lacked depth. It was just sort of salty and fatty. This is not to say it was terrible, just needs some finessing.
  5. The French couple with two young children next to us were already there when we arrived, and were just getting their appetizers when we left. I don’t know the full story, but they seemed highly pissed off.
  6. Professor X couldn’t get a spoon to save his life. He actually wandered in to the nearby server station and grabbed one without detection.

Visit 2: A and I headed out for a lunch adventure. She too was excited to hear about Robata’s arrival, but doesn’t get into “town” much outside of work. We ended up leaving because the waiter openly admitted that they wouldn’t be able to get us out in an hour. Some would take umbrage at his transparency, but we found it refreshing and happily toddled down to Cloud and Kelly’s where they also couldn’t get us out in an hour, but indicated nothing of it. Ah Corvallis.

Visit 3:  A and I headed out for a happy hour adventure with our menfolk. We envisioned sake during the initial planning stage, and A hoped for soba. Unfortunately, post-work fatigue put the kaibash on sake and they don’t do soba. A scored a seat – the exact one Professor X and I had the first time – and service seemed to be going well. Despite this, I again noted a few “fuck my life” faces among the customers. I also noticed it was primarily occupied by the 60+ crowd. This would be a red flag in other locales, but not here. They are the largest demographic in Florida’s PNW annex after all.

This time around we ordered beef donburi and variations of the make-your-own bowl; shoyu for me, miso for A, and tonkatsu for At. Professor X ordered a chicken skewer too.

Impressions:

  1. My ramen was tepid and reeked of baking soda. The broth was nearly tasteless, and didn’t have enough salt. How can you not have enough salt in shoyu broth? Shoyu practically is salt.
  2. At reported that his was more like noodles with a weird sauce than a bowl of soup. Other comments included not enough meat, store bought noodles, and his was also tepid.
  3. A straight up couldn’t finish hers and concurred with all of our observations.
  4. Professor X finished his, but mentioned that he needed to add a great deal of chili oil and shichimi to get the flavor profile popping. He agreed with At that their protein portions were stingy. However, the rice was “not bad.”
  5. Our waiter had a habit of lingering silently around the table like a puppy. Oddly enough, Rajiv still couldn’t get a spoon and wandered, yet again, into the server station without the employee’s noticing.
  6. Cabbage was blessedly absent from all the bowls, but we were given topping options. I could see it trailing off chopsticks at other tables. (Ed note: I like cabbage.)

Thankfully, A and At are not the kind of folk who blame the inviting party for bad restaurant experiences and the relationship is intact. As we wandered over to gelato, At mentioned that they could easily make better at home, and, hey! maybe we should for one of the themed cooking nights! Everyone agreed while hungrily inhaling the scent of pizza on the air.

So what to do with all this data? After a great deal of sighing and expectation managing, we’re sad to say that we won’t be back. I’ve grown incredibly fucking patient with restaurants since moving to Corvallis. We’ll overlook disproportionately long wait times, lost credit cards, forgotten drinks and appetizers, and other instances of Keystone cop bumbling if the food is even reasonably good. Unfortunately, Robata Grill and Ramen Noodle just isn’t worth it.

Side note to Sada: Sir, if Robata is indeed in your restaurant lineage, please get upstairs post-haste and box that kid’s ears. It’s an embarrassment to the quality of your izakaya joint, and all the work you’ve poured in to make it a well-oiled machine.

 

 

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Batch #1 lime pickle

I have no idea when pickling became an icon of cool. Maybe 2010? All I remember is that recipes and canning instructions were suddenly featured on every slick food site, and restaurants were serving “house” pickles. Kimchi also stormed the U.S. food scene around this time. One thing that I noted during this branch of homesteading is that South Asian pickles never made the front page. It made sense at the time because my experience with this genre was unremarkable. They were always too salty, too tart, unpleasant textures; all around too much. My least favorite Indian pickle was lime pickle. It generally tasted like spicy floor cleaner or, lordissa help me, sweet and spicy floor cleaner.

Many many moons later, I would be offered lime pickle on homemade mathri, a popular flaky biscuit particular to Rajasthan. The presented pickle was not only lime, but had taken on a shade of black during its fermentation process that otherwise indicates “Do not eat.” Professor X and Dr. Mother-in-Law assured me it was delicious. It was also the last of its kind; made by Professor X’s paternal grandmother who passed away a year or so ago and set aside for his homecoming. As culinary traditions tend to go, Dr. Mother-in-Law learned the recipe early on, but did not write it down.

From the picture above, it’s correct to assume that I liked the pickle a great deal. What I didn’t expect when I set forth to put up some pickle was how much of a commitment it would be. The recipe contained in above jars has to sit, and be turned daily, for a month before you can even consider eating it. And, it’s apparently a quick pickle (quickle?).

The breadth and depth of Indian pickle making was also unforeseen. Achar, and its rules, vary by region, state, and even household. Some do whole limes. Others do quarters. Some stuff the masalas into the fruit. Others temper the spices in oil, then add it to the mixture. Older generations prohibit menstruating women from touching the pickle jar. Newer recipes recommend sterilized Mason jars, and even putting it in the oven on the lowest setting every day to simulate sun exposure. Some swear only on earthen vessels covered with a cloth.

There is also a debate about definitions, previously encountered during an attempt to make lemon chicken in Kolkata. Ask for a lime in India, and you’ll be presented with a large, yellowish fruit with bumpy skin that smells like a lemon, but has a distinctive resiny flavor. This is nimbu.  Request a lemon, and you will receive a small, green fruit with smooth skin that also smells like a lemon. This is citron, just like the French word for “lemon,” yet it tastes only vaguely like one. Even with this in mind, searching for recipes online continued to confound with everyone calling it “nimbu achar,” but alternating between “lemon” and “lime” because U.S. markets simply don’t have either nimbu or citron. Perhaps its a matter of personal taste.

After a week of collaborative research, and a Skype call, two missing factors came to light. First, the recipe I sought was one for kala nimbu achar (black lime pickle). Not only does the mix turn black, but it has kala namak (Himalayan black salt) in it. Second, it takes at least twenty years to get to the state of savory voodoo contained in that small jar. This bit of information gave me pause as I did the math. I imagined the pickle riding alongside houseplants and cat carriers across the U.S. I saw myself and Professor X as an elderly couple, finally getting a taste of the pickle but unable to properly chew mathri with dentures or handle spicy food due to aging stomachs. I also saw it permanently camped out somewhere in the apartment; requiring care and feeding like some strange, oozy pet.

We have one more week before Batch One is done. Maybe it will be worth it, and we’ll go in for the long haul with some kala nimbu that we break out like a fine wine for my 60th birthday. Or perhaps I’ll decide, like Dr. Mother-in-Law, to stop wasting limes on fungal growths.

 

 

 

I was happily trucking along to the library during lunch hour last Monday. After a half day Friday, I felt refreshed, focused, and productive. Just as my brain said “We should do half days more often,” I felt my boot shift on rain slicked stone stairs. Next thing I know my handbag was airborne, and I was on my ass – legs askew, hat crooked, umbrella at the bottom of the staircase, rain soaking into my pantyhose. A bespectacled young man asks, “Are you okay?” All I could think to reply through the adrenaline and pain was “Well, let me straighten my hat first!”

I discovered the next morning that my ankle (and talus!) was broken.

Small avulsion fractures are treated like a bad ankle sprain. My look for the next week or so will be complimented by a walking cast; the clompy black Darth Vader type things so many Midwestern femmes with the hubris to wear heels sport come winter. I’ve been instructed to stay off it as much as possible. This is difficult because I’m a professional putterer, as well as the guardian of domestic hygiene. It’s also a challenge because the things we eat during the week are all quick recipes from my mental files.

Professor X does cook, but, like many households, he is not the cook. As of the incident, our larder was filled with ingredients from my aforementioned mental files. His mental recipes don’t include kale or asparagus, and any flesh other than chicken makes him nervous. Thankfully, he’s far more committed to keeping me horizontal than I am, so he took up the gauntlet.

Our usual routine when he cooks is that I sit in a chair at the table or otherwise make myself available for his few questions on doneness in a repertoire familiar to him. Is the chicken cooked through? Are the masalas burned? I can jump up and visually inspect the element in question, or even chip in if things spiral out of control. With this past week’s arrangement, he was on his own in a wilderness of olives, red meat, and green veg.

I initially thought that dictating “how to” would be simple enough. Take out the steak. Salt and pepper. Set water to boil for the potatoes. However, once the meal reached its critical point of coming together at the end, I found that I couldn’t give clear instructions to multitask. And, after all these years of burning bacon and parathas, our long dormant smoke detector woke up.

beeep beeep beeep beeep

“Okay now flip the steak and turn off the heat before putting some butter in the pot. Oh sorry, the potato pot, not the steak skillet.”

beeep beeep beeep beeep

“The potatoes need to go in before they cool so the butter melts and the steak should have rested enough so take it out of the skillet so it doesn’t burn”

While Professor X went to take care of the smoke alarm, I was impotent to do anything …for about 30 seconds. The professional putterer in my head commanded me to keep a stiff upper lip and rush into the fray. Dinner was falling apart! Of course it wasn’t, and I ended up soaking his pack of smokes with boiled potato water due to my new center of gravity. When Professor X returned a minute later, he sent me promptly back to the couch, where I stayed until food was served.

We have approximately one more week of this. Perhaps we should stock up on Trader Joe’s frozen lest I drive him insane.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Such was the advice imparted by my mother-in-law one muggy winter morning in Kolkata. We were making dosa, and it was my turn after watching her deftly apply batter to pan a few times; using nothing but the back of a small ladle to smooth out symmetrical, thin crepes. As one might imagine, I was skeptical of my abilities.

After assembling the batter – 2 parts rice to 1 part urud dal soaked in water for four hours, blitzed in the Mixy (blender), and left to ferment overnight – all you really have to do is fill the cooked crepes. However, that’s where shit gets crazy. Professor X and I tried one afternoon a while back, and ended up with something more like lumpy, torn/misshaped pancakes. Some were undercooked as well, and we ended up just eating the potato filling. One tip that we either deliberately ignored or completely missed was rubbing the heated pan with an onion wedge to prevent sticking. Another helpful hint was not to get the pan too hot. The most important one though was to spread the batter out boldy, and with pressure, in an increasingly large circular pattern. This is how you get the right diameter and right thinness.

The first dosa made with Dr. Mother-in-Law at my side had holes and was thick in the middle with burned edges. It turns out that boldy, and with pressure, does not mean dainty little circles. You cannot hesitate with dosa. The second try yielded only slightly better results. I applied more boldness and more pressure to the third, and it tore. At this point, I started thinking I should just stick with uttapam. Thankfully, the instructor was patient and encouraged my effort by  repeating the key tip – “Boldy, and with pressure.”

I wish there was a success story at the end of this tale. Unfortunately, my expert-guided dosa attempt generally failed to result in crisp carby envelopes that carry spiced potatoes, sambar, and coconut chutney to your face. My technique vacillated wildly between too timid and too bold. I did, however, discover that “boldy, and with pressure” applies to playing cello as well. Thankfully, no one will go hungry if a version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” doesn’t quite work out.

 

 

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