11202556_10106829381307035_6182504890439333277_nIn 48-ish hours, I should be taking off for leg one of three in a 26-hour solo flight to Kolkata; CCU for all you airport code enthusiasts. It’s okay if there is a delay on this leg. I’ve got a lengthy layover in Vancouver, BC. To say I have travel anxiety would be an understatement. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with flying, once in the air, and have no reservations about visiting India for the first time. However, the logistics of air travel and the alternate realities that house airplanes (a.k.a. airports) are a cesspool of darkness. So many variables that directly impact my immediate comfort are in the hands of harried, underpaid people.

Despite this, as well as the anxiety dreams of losing my passport and inexplicably getting evicted while away, I know that I’m in good hands upon arrival. My parents in-law and Professor X are waiting for me past the customs barrier. I also remind myself that, unlike the last time I went to Asia, this will not be a frantic slog led by a shrieking, delusional madwoman. I will not have to empty my bladder over a hole in a monastery rooftop big enough to send me crashing three floors to an unseemly death in a pit of excrement lest my thigh muscles give out mid-squat. I won’t be followed through tourist attractions by undercover police. (Thanks for the smoke though, Not-So-Covert Chinese Cop.) The food will be better too since we’re mostly eating in, which creates the unique opportunity to learn tips and tricks of Indian home cooking. The mysteries of dosa will be unveiled!

For those readers who may be wondering if I’ll partake of India’s extensive street food options, the short answer is “No.” All the typhoid and hepatitis A shots in the world can’t prevent the damage incurred by a few innocent pani puri from an unknown vendor. I’m adventurous, but not completely stupid. (Pro-tip: Even locals get sick from street food. Perhaps not as bad as visitors would, but sick nonetheless.) We will be visiting K.C. Das, the famous Bengali sweet shop recently featured on The Food Network. We’ll also visit restaurants of a more personal legend; all the places on which Professor X has waxed nostalgic since we met three years ago. Most notable are chicken roll, kebab, and fruit cake. You read that correctly; fruit cake like the stuff American bakeries push at Christmas. Apparently, it’s a holdover from British times.

With this then, I’ll be off-line for a while. Until next time…

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

I don’t acknowledge Labor Day as the end of summer, despite school starting, linen sales, and earlier sunsets. However, we’re almost to the autumnal equinox. The last of the tomato plants and chiles should be addressed, and it’s blessedly cool this morning. I also recognize that I haven’t written in some time. There are two reasons for this. First, this summer has been ridiculously busy. Second, heat impacts my ability to think clearly. We have tales to tell though, and list form will expedite things.

  1. Professor X caught the cooking bug. His skills were already solid, but he took the helm infrequently. Sometime in July, a series of conditions converged. My culinary inspiration petered out due to work and a scalding summer. We got an Amazon gift card for our wedding, with which we bought a small grinder and a carafe to fit the ancient blender I inherited from my grandmother. And oddly enough, Professor X discovered solace from work chaos in chopping, blending, and frying. He stuck to our usual repertoire of dishes for a while, but found additional inspiration when he rediscovered the cookbooks his mom gifted him for his move to the States. As it turns out, Professor X is a stellar cook; sometimes scattered – he forgets where he is in a recipe and still doesn’t trust himself to salt a dish properly – but that’s part of the adventure. I usually sit at the table with a glass of wine and read the steps to him.
  2. Professor X has become obsessed with cured meats, so much that we joke about his Plan B – salummelier. It’s like a sommelier, but with meat. It comes as news because he’s been wary of such things after a disturbing confrontation with pepperoni in 2008. Apparently the cashier told him that it needed to be cooked, when, in fact, it didn’t. Well, at least not cooked like he did at the time – fried in a pan. It was also the kind that needed to be peeled of its casing beforehand; a fact mentioned by neither the cashier nor the deli guy despite Professor X’s inquiry about the product.
  3. Confession #1: After much field work, we’ve concluded and accepted that there isn’t pastry or cake worth a good god damn in Corvallis. Sure, Fred Meyer tiramisu is tasty enough. Market of Choice’s pear tarts will do. Sugoi – the new conveyor sushi joint – had chocolate mousse cake that was competitive enough, but really? We have to go to a sushi place for decent cake? Neither of us can pin down exactly what it is about the sweets around here, only that it just isn’t happening. Corvallis folks, please don’t rise up with your opinions under the guise of being helpful. New Morning Bakery sucks. Gathering Together at the farmers market is too hit or miss. Professor X and I are city people. We want the pastry we want when we want it, and we want it sinfully based in classical baking principles. No more of this healthy version shit. I also don’t want to queue for half an hour behind every sun-wizened couple with five freckled kids only to find that everything is gone. And speaking of the farmers market…
  4. Confession #2: We’ve also admitted that, while we love the farmers market, Saturday between 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. is not possible. We aren’t even human during those hours, let alone possessed of sufficient cognition to either plan the week’s menu beforehand or be able to plan on the fly. It’s a shame because the quality and prices can’t be beat, especially when considered with the other grocery options around here, but we’ve stopped feeling guilty or honestly considering a church conspiracy. We’ll get there if the mood strikes.

The same day I lost my senses and bought 15 plants with corresponding pots for a container garden, we also bought a grill. Nothing fancy. Just your standard Weber kettle, although we did consider a Japanese ceramic multi-purpose model. It’s on our list of “things for when we have our own yard.” As we walked to the checkout line, Professor X asked “You know how to do this, right? I don’t have the first idea how. We’re actually going to us it, yes?” I assured him of my grill prowess. As things go, the grill sat unused for a few months.

Corvallis is currently in the throes of a heat wave. Not just hot for Oregon, but empirically hot. I wake every morning to a little red triangle with an exclamation point in the top left corner of my phone. “Excessive heat warning,” it reads. “Fire alert,” it reminds me. Of course I’ve been more careful with my cigarette butts. However, I’ve not yet transitioned entirely to the PNW hyper-vigilant state of mind. Our A/C units have been roaring for three days straight, and I built the next week’s menu around grilling. I’m a grown ass adult who knows how to build a responsible fire.

When we tottered out to the back patio with a bowl of veggies and a plate of chapli kebab around 7:30 last night, I experienced a brief moment of panic. Professor X’s line of inquiry from our trip to Fred Meyer was rattling through my head. “Why would you build a fire when it’s 100 degrees outside?” He had a point. Why would anyone of sane mind make a hot day even hotter? How many times have I swilled more wine than necessary in reaction to the rivulets of sweat running into my collar while tending the cooking flame? How many times have I ended up too deep in my cups and hungry enough to eat charred meat? It’s been at least four years since I last confronted a charcoal grill.

Despite the self-doubt, I pressed on and Professor X observed from a safe distance. Incrementally, he approached the flame. First holding a plate. Then keeping an eye on ones that were about to burn. After I lost a patty to the fire, he took over the spatula; maneuvering around the grill as the wind shifted, scooping perpendicular to the grate at first, then parallel. As we came up the back steps, he articulated a plan to improve heat distribution and a rough sketch for tandoori style chicken to be cooked the next night.

Chapli Kebab for Grilling Converts

Get thee:

1 lb of ground beef

one yellow onion, half diced fine, other half sliced vertically

green chili, diced fine

roma tomato, diced fine

one egg

1/2 cup panko bread crumbs

1 tsp. salt

2 tsp. cumin

2 tsp. coriander

one lime, cut into quarters

Assemble:

1) Combine everything except the vertically sliced onions and lime quarters in a bowl. Knead with your hands until diced vegetables are evenly distributed.

2) Take up golf ball sized clumps and shape into patties. You should have about…oh hell. I don’t know how many you should have. 20? Maybe 15?

3) Grill for ~3 minutes on each side over charcoal on a sweltering hot evening. Realize that you probably should have bought a small table since there is nowhere to put the other food, grilling accessories, and drinks. Pick ants out of your wine until done. Be careful not to toss the plate into the trash while disposing of burned paratha.

4) Serve with lime wedges, vertically sliced onion, and the good batch of paratha in your notably cooler apartment since you didn’t turn on the stove. Grilled zucchini and peppers optional.

This guy has wok hay.

This guy has wok hay.

I interviewed for an administrative gig at OrSU last week. After chatting amicably with the team for two hours, I wandered over to Professor X’s office so we could walk home together. A small brown bag pierced the landscape of empty coffee cups and junk mail on his conference table. I picked it up, along with the coffee cups, and noticed it was heavy.

“What’s in the bag?” I asked while opening it. (Why do humans do stuff like that? It’s akin to reflexively smelling the air after someone announces a fart.)

“CC gave it to me at lunch today,” Professor X replied. “It’s his wife’s tofu from the party.”

Indeed it was the very same life-enhancing tofu from the Corvallis Chinese School’s lunar new year party. I spied a blue post-it note as well. My heart skipped a few times as I scanned the recipe.

“That’s it?” I muttered to myself, turning the post-it to make sure nothing was on the back.

A vague sense of doom rolled over me. I had judged myself and been found wanting. Suddenly, the interview really didn’t go that that well, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to recreate the tofu recipe. I can in the most technical sense of the term, but it won’t be the same. Why? I don’t have wok hay.

Wok hay, “wok taste” or “breath of the wok” if the translator insists that everything Asian has to be all mystical and shit, is the result of cooking in a well-seasoned stainless steel vessel. In the same way a trusted cast-iron skillet develops its own essence over time and use, woks develop wok hay. My wok is non-stick. I should also probably get rid of it since the non-stick coating is visibly scratched. While old, it’s more likely to give us Alzheimer’s than impart a smokey je ne sais quois particular to our household.

My mood continued its descent as we made our way across Monroe. All the institutional acronyms that I couldn’t recall during the interview started bubbling up. I regretted not buying a good wok in Chinatown while we lived in Chicago. If I had when I first thought of it in 2009, we’d totally have some wok hay going on by now. As it stands, I could get an affordable one at Fred Meyer, but it would be a clean slate.

When we arrived home, Professor X found the blue post-it while storing the tofu in the fridge. “Hey! She included a recipe!”

I mustered a sigh in response.

“Oh shit,” he said from the kitchen. “That’s it?”

“Yup…that’s it,” I said.

“But where did all the other flavors come from,” he countered.

I pursed my lips and raised an eyebrow.

“Oh no! WOK TASTE!”

Guess we’ll just have to get cooking. I’ll report back on this matter when the new wok is seasoned.

Mrs. Chang’s Kick-Ass Tofu That I’ll Only Be Able to Recreate in a Few Years Because Wok Hay is Earned, Not Purchased

Get thee:
Tofu – I’m going to presume a 1 pound block of medium
Soy sauce – enough to turn it very lightly beige
Sugar – just a pinch from what I can tell
Minced garlic – I couldn’t find a single piece in the dish, so let’s assume a scant quantity
Oil – vegetable oil? maybe sesame…enough to cook the tofu in… 1-2 tbsp?

1) Cut tofu into bite-sized cubes.
2) Heat oil in your well-seasoned wok for a few minutes. Add tofu and saute for 2-3 minutes.
3) Add soy sauce and sugar, cover pan for another 2-3 minutes.
4) Add garlic and serve.
5) Try not to weep openly because it will take a long time to develop wok hay.

Happy Year of the Sheep!

Happy Year of the Sheep!

During the last years of my Columbus life, I hosted Lunar New Year parties. They were a welcome distraction since late winter is a dreadful time year in Ohio. The Western holiday festivities are over. Valentine’s Day is complicated and depressing for most of my inner circle. And since we all had some interest in Asia, either through our studies or travel, it just worked. Festive times were had. I still get Lunar New Year messages recalling fond memories from the bohemian crew who attended these soirees.

About a week ago, Professor X received an invitation to the Corvallis Chinese School party, which featured home-cooked food, games, and student performances. The latter came first, with the youngest students performing live or, more accurately, being encouraged to perform live. Of the two, one was more interested in making fart noises into the mic, while the other declared “Banana! Potato!” every time his turn came. (Ed note: Yes, my ovaries were exploding. I’m still recovering from the dream of conceiving a mischievous son.)

After wrapping up the presentations, we were invited to eat. (65 and up first, of course.) The potluck was a home-style spread of tea eggs, stir-fried veg, noodles, and mains. Everything was delicious, but the most notable dish for me was a spicy salad of celery, cloud mushrooms, and chile oil. Professor X’s favorites included a slow cooker version of beef hot pot, which was incredibly tender and succulent, and stir-fried tofu. Professor X is a carnivore and vegetable hater of legendary proportions, so it was a surprise to see him plowing through two portions when I turned to offer him a taste of celery salad.

“You’re eating tofu?”

“Seriously. Try this,” he replied. “It reminds me of good paneer.”

The ensuing forkful was…I really can’t find a word for it. Silky, smokey, savory. It was awesome. Possibly the best tofu I’ve had since 2004. While we ogled over the dish, Professor X’s colleague casually mentioned that his wife made it.

Dessert was similarly revealing. In addition to tangerines, there was “dessert soup” and a “Chinese sweet with red bean paste.” I got both, but was curious about what exactly I was eating. “Dessert soup” ended up being pureed mung beans with coconut milk and a touch of sugar; very much like homemade soy milk in its warm, soothing delicacy. A resourceful young woman at our table (read: eight years old) retrieved the information from the kitchen when no one had an answer. (Ed note: She successfully applied her scouting skills and unassuming size later during the scavenger hunt. I see her doing very well as a diplomat or member of the CIA. Still in pink, of course.) The “Chinese sweet with red bean paste” remains a mystery. Sure, it’s red beans baked with glutinous rice flour and cut into small triangles. I ate 10 of them, so I know darn well that they have just the thinnest bit of crisp outside that gives way to two layers chewy mochi love surrounding a scattering a red beans. But what are they? Try Googling “Chinese sweet with red bean paste.” The search results are enormous. Perhaps it’s better that the recipe remains a mystery. The last thing I need is a whole pan laying around the house.

The games started after dinner. We stayed for the scavenger hunt, which was a raucous good time even if I didn’t understand half of it, but left in the interlude between amusements. Once out into the quiet of Corvallis night, Professor X stated “You know, India will be a lot like this.”

“How so?” I asked.

“The level of stimulation with everyone talking loudly at the same time. It’s all in good fun though,” he replied.

I don’t doubt this is the case. However, I find more and more that I would rather be clueless, yet amused in a bilingual cacophony than bored to tears in a crowd that I understand. If nothing else, the food is better.

I entered 2015 dead asleep under numerous blanket layers. Professor X and I dined earlier at Luc – one of Corvallis’ four romantic date restaurants – and even went to Fred Meyer for midnight bubbly and a 32″ TV. Somewhere around the hardware section, my joints started to ache and not in that wearing-high-heels kind of way. The faux fur coat wasn’t warm enough. About an hour after we got home, I was shivering to come apart at the seams. Such is life. My main regret is that I’m terribly late with my 2014 year in review.

Let’s get down to it, yes? In no particular order:

1) Indian food at home
My first attempt to make Indian food at home was in 2000. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I decided to make my beau at the time samosas from Madhur Jaffrey and some S. Asian inspired something something entrée from Molly Katzen. It was a disaster, and I declared Indian food a restaurant pursuit. Some years later, an art history colleague offered to teach us her chicken recipe that she received from a graduated elder. While much better than my own effort, it didn’t quite convince me to give up my take-out habit. I did see the error of my ways though. For one thing, you have to use a lot more of everything than you think. Nearly a decade later, I met Professor X, who not only showed me fundamentals of S. Asian cooking, but also acts as a sanity check whenever I discover a new recipe. Thanks to a pressure cooker and the Internet (Manjula Jain and Sanjeev Kapoor are highly recommended), I’ve been turning out rajma, chole bhature, aloo methi, and a number of other dishes on a weekly basis. We even did a masala Thanksgiving this year with chicken malaiwala as the main course.

2) Pok Pok
Mme. Jo, It Girl of Avondale and my long-lost twin (she’s the right-handed one), came forth from Chicago for a holiday. She, like me, lets the location take her where it may with few set destinations. Pok Pok was her only request. I knew Pok Pok was hot. I knew they did Thai. I also dragged my feet a bit because I hate driving, especially in Portland. Shit got real when she offered to get behind the wheel.

We arrived to find a sprawling, cozy patio and an hour and a half wait. We put in a name, and tottered off to Whiskey Soda Lounge, which is also owned by Pok Pok. The bar is set up brilliantly to be a holding area as the two locations have merged computer systems. The waiter at WSL knew we were coming, and gave us a Pok Pok menu to peruse over drinks. When our table was ready, WSL let us know and cashed us out quickly.

Looking back on it, I’m grateful that we had the time to look over the menu. It’s extensive, written in very small font, and neither of us had seen that kind of Thai food before. You will not find pad thai, tom yum soup, or any other dish you’re used to. Instead, you’ll find things like grilled boar collar, a litany of yam (Thai salads), and authentic street food. All of it is impeccably fresh. Most of it is seriously spicy. And you absolutely must get the Pok Pok special: half a roasted game hen with sticky rice, papaya salad, and dipping sauce.

At one point, Mme. Jo beamed over her “33” beer, “This totally reminds me of my trip to Vietnam!”

3) Gathering Together Farm
Ygal, my former assistant editor, has ended up being a great restaurant source. He has a discerning palette and urban expectations when it comes to dining out. Grazi to ya.

I recorded my experience at Gathering Together already, so I will just say that I can’t wait for them to open again in the spring. Winter is just that much longer without it. My only bit of critique is that they regulate their wine pours better. I stopped by with Mme. Jo and we got two vastly different glasses. Hers: scanty and she was in the mood to drink. Mine: overflowing and I was at the end of my booze tolerance for the week. It’s the small ironies.

4) Southtown Al Jebal
Hidden away in Southtown, where many Corvallisites can’t be bothered to tread, is Al Jebal; location of our favorite kebab. They’re starting to recognize us. I predict that they’ll ask us where we’ve been if we don’t stop in for a while by summer. Portions are epic. Everything on the menu is good. I’d encourage more Corvallis folks to go there, but, honestly, I don’t want to be stuck in a queue with their blandness.

5) Columbus food scene
Oddly enough, I’ve seen more of my parents since moving farther away than when I lived in Chicago. In addition to getting in more quality time with the fam, I’ve also experienced more of Columbus’ rapidly changing food scene. It wasn’t bad before I left in 2009, but my oh my baby has grown so fast in the past two years. All the craft beer pop-ups and chalkboard menu joints remind me of Portland, except better because Midwesterners don’t suffer the kind of annoying, twee smugness that sugarcoats the City of Roses.

My favorite discoveries so far – Mya’s and Hot Chicken Takeover. Mya’s used to park its two piece and a biscuit goodness in the Super Foodmart parking lot on High and Pacemont. They’ve since moved over to Sawmill Rd. It doesn’t matter, because their fried chicken with honey vinegar drizzle is worth the drive. Hot Chicken Takeover – upstairs in the North Market Friday through Sunday – does fried bird Nashville-style with four levels of spice ranging from “Cold” (regular fried chicken) to “#@!*$%&.” Served with slaw, mac’n’cheese, and pickles, their two piece meals are a glorious feast. Do try the banana pudding as well.

6) Chicago blitzkreig
Professor X and I rolled into the Windy City for two days after Christmas. Since it was our present to ourselves, we ate heartily of our favorites in the city: snails at La Creperie, kebab at Sabri Nihari, sushi at Sushi Mura. We picked up a few things at Patel Brothers, and inhaled deeply of their pickle bar while debating TSA logistics. (Is pickle a liquid or a solid?) We even scratched a to-do off our Chicago Date list – cocktails on the top floor of Hancock Tower.

Perhaps it was the Russian tourist who farted on my head or seeing half the block of Davis St. where Professor X lived burned down, but the trip took on a misty good-bye tour feel. While smoking and strolling among Lakeview’s extant functional gaslights on our last night, we agreed that we walked away mad at Chicago. It was good to come back and put some things to bed.

7) Local Ocean
We drive over to Newport every three months or so to inhale some ocean breeze, watch the sea lions, and, usually, eat at Local Ocean. It’s the one place over there that offers seafood in ways other than fried. Don’t get me wrong. Fried is awesome. I just figured that since they had all those nice ocean creatures right the hell there, chefs would be a little more flexible with their techniques. Perhaps they’re answering tourists’ demands.

We visited Local Ocean for the first time with my parents in 2013, but my recent visit with Mme. Jo was unforgettable in its decadent simplicity. We had been walking for much of the day, and the autumn air turned cold about two blocks away from the resto. We warmed ourselves with a bowl a lobster bisque, then shared a dozen raw oysters and a split of prossecco as dusk fell and rain started. She’s an engrossed and deliberate diner, so the moment was even more of a silent communion.

8) New Morning Bakery fruit cake
Yes. Just the fruitcake. See, I hate fruitcake. It’s too sweet, too dry, too much plastic-y candied fruit. For some reason, New Morning Bakery’s English-style cake is actually good – chock full of walnuts, almonds, dried fruits that still resemble themselves, and plenty of spices. My mom picked one up during her 2013 visit, but I never thought that I’d anticipate its seasonal return in 2014. We bought four one-pounders in the span between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. We were even gone for a week of that time period. *sigh*

9) Sweets at Devi
Every Friday, our local S. Asian grocery receives a shipment of sweets and snacks from Portland. Sometimes only the samosas show up. Sometimes it’s everything except the jalebis. Regardless, this discovery has made Friday very exciting because Corvallis has nothing else like it. My only complaint is the irregularity of it, but that’s just how things go in here. Stores actually run out of things. There is nothing you can do but wait a week for the next shipment.

10) McWeenie’s Hot Dog stand
I love McWeenie’s hot dogs. There really isn’t much more to say than that. I love them, and the owner is an interesting, awesome cat. If you don’t buy a dog from him at least once, you hate freedom. To help you out, he’s located on Madison Ave. in front of the strip that houses Starbuck’s and Einstein’s during the week from 11:00 to 3:00-ish. He also sets up at the outdoor Farmers Market on Saturdays from late April to November. Go. Eat.

So that’s my 2014 in review. We’re finally in a groove here in Corvallis. We’ve learned to enjoy small things and quiet rituals. I’ve remembered that I didn’t forget how to be happy. Sure, we still chomp at the bit for something a little more…diverse, but it’s home for now.

You see, I’m sick for the first time in nearly a year. Aside from the usual allergy and monthly complaints and a few instances of fighting something off, I haven’t had an actual cold since leaving Chicago. Nearly forgot what it was like.

I didn’t log on to tell the world this though. Instead, I wish to share a food memory prompted by the cats’ reaction to the fact that Professor X fed them this morning. He’s fed them hundreds of times before, but never in the morning. Breakfast is usually my shift. So when I staggered out of bed a stiff, sinusy mess, Minerva and Basil greeted me with a degree of wide-eyed panic and indignation that suggested they didn’t get breakfast. Food and water levels were optimal. I checked around for anything else out-of-place. Nothing. It’s just that Professor X did it, not me. Apparently, it tastes different.

Many years ago, I remember my mom coming down with a nasty flu in the middle of the day; one of those fine in the morning, dead on your feet by noon things. She was so sick that she actually went to bed for a bit, and trusted me to make my brother lunch since Dad was at work. While I don’t remember our exact ages, I do recall that my cooking expertise was limited to the microwave, a manual can-opener, and butter knives. Perhaps 9? That would place Alex at 5…

At any rate, Mom went to bed and I broke the news to my brother, who promptly lodged a complaint in the form of whining. SOMETHING HAD CHANGED! I assured him everything was fine. He started to cry. Did I mention that I was also tasked to stay quiet while Mom slept? That was quickly falling apart as he made his teary way to our parents’ bedroom to appeal to a higher authority. I diverted him by saying that she was sick, but the idea failed to take hold in his brain. I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Me: “Dude, seriously. Mom is sick. She told me to make lunch.”
Alex: “Eeeeehhhhhlalallalaaaa! MoooooommmmMM!”
Me: “Dude! It’s gonna be fine. Look! Fruit roll ups! For fuck’s sake, she’s not dead. She’s just taking a nap!”
Alex: “AAAAaAAAAAhhhhahahhahaaaa! MooooooommmmM!”
Me: “Come on, man! Don’t wake her up or we’ll get in trouble!”
Alex: *sniff* *sniff*

I desperately rummaged through the pantry for a collection of his favorite foods. I knew that it wasn’t “balanced,” whatever that meant, but figured Mom would be none the wiser as long as she stayed asleep.

I remember my heart racing. First, I had to confront opening a can. The cold shock of ragged metal through my finger was still fresh in my mind from attempts past. Second, I had to not spill anything, which was huge because (1) kid and (2) clumsy in the kitchen. (Ed. note: I’m still clumsy in the kitchen.) Somehow I pulled it off. I arranged everything on festive paper plates all fancy like, so nothing was touching. I remember explaining the meal like a five-star waiter – Campbell’s Meatball and Noodle-O soup, strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups, black olives, maybe pickles, Teddy Grahams, and a Capri Sun, a treat reserved strictly for school lunches. He gazed at me, awestruck by my maverick assortment of highly regulated foods. He giggled. I told him not to tell Mom. And then we dug in, and Mom got her quiet nap.

As of Saturday, October 25, 2014, I am officially done with risotto and Jamie Oliver cookbooks. Both are cast out from my life; banished and never to return.

Professor X loves risotto. Whenever we fantasize about Italian food, he brings it up. My own fraught history with the dish is documented in entries longs past. I should like it, but haven’t found an actual risotto that works for me.

I was perusing Cook with Jamie for meal inspiration a couple weeks ago when my cognitive processes faltered. Oliver advertises his risotto recipe as practically no-fail. You can even make it for a dinner party and still hang with guests with his method. Okay. Sounds good. I marked the ingredients on my grocery list and toddled off to Fred Meyer.

Spinach with goat cheese was the intended risotto flavor, but Professor X went out of town. No reason to fuss over the stove. Instead, I ate the spinach and goat cheese by themselves while watching Chinese movies. Some time later, I found myself wandering Trader Joe’s when I suddenly remembered the Arborio rice hanging out in the pantry. Mushrooms, stock, and vermouth were procured. I proudly announced that we would have risotto that weekend.

The process started out fine, as it usually does. Dice and saute aromatics. Add rice. Sir in vermouth until evaporated. Stir in ladlefuls of stock until evaporated. The rice even displayed telltale sign of happiness by turning translucent while retaining the opaque core. I put it aside on a greased tray, per Oliver’s instructions, and pulled together the add-ins. While the mushrooms released, then reabsorbed, their liquid, I mused over the PNW’s particularly evocative autumnal weather and decided that it was a perfect Saturday for making risotto.

The crystalline web of my revery would soon shatter. The instructions indicated that I should add half the remaining stock to the rice, and bring to a boil. Well…it never boiled. It just absorbed right up. I plugged on; stirring in stock, stirring in stock, until there was no more stock to stir. I tasted a grain. It was hard inside and gluey outside. In fact, the whole mass was sticking together like a lump of clay. (Oliver would call this “claggy.”) It was supposed to be “looser than you think it should be.” Not to be deterred, I whipped out some reserve stock and kept on – fervently stirring stirring stirring an increasingly difficult to handle mass of rice and mushrooms like a witch over her kettle. Sweat started to bead up on my back. I whispered curses at the brew. I was hungry. I needed a shower. And the bloody rice still wasn’t done.

After an eternity – actually, 20 more minutes and another litre of stock – the rice was finally cooked through. It looked nothing like the picture, and no amount of plating magic could have made it so. I glopped it into bowls with some grated Parmesean. We ate and it wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t what it’s supposed to be. Professor X commented that we were probably supposed to eat it “al dente,” which, to both of us, is code for “uncooked.”

Later that night, I set about cleaning up the epic risotto mess. Despite the fact that there was at least a cup caked onto the stove, the floor, and the wall, a great deal remained for leftovers.

“Do you want me to save this?” I asked. Professor X is mildly superstitious about throwing away rice; muttering “Anapurna” to himself if there is even a tablespoon put in the trash after dinner.

He showed up at my side. We both peered at it suspiciously.

“Well…what do you think? he replied.

“If this risotto was a person, I would punch it in its whore mouth.”

And so we chucked it into the garbage with zero apologies.

Professor X and I made a monthly pilgrimage to Devon Ave. for Indian food during our time in Chicago. After gorging on kebab and numerous other savory dishes, we’d manage to find room for tea and sweets after. Professor X loves all of them, but rasmalai is a shared favorite. Now that we’re tucked away in a town with only two Indian restaurants and one S. Asian grocery, sweets aren’t easy to come by. Devi has a few kinds shipped in every Friday from Portland, but they’re ones that keep well: ladoo, jalebi, and chumchum. Rasmalai – paneer balls steamed and soaked in sweetened milk – go bad quickly. With Durga Puja on the horizon, I decided to make some at home this week after consulting Manjula’s Kitchen, my go-to for Indian home cooking.

Step One: Make Paneer
Yes. You have to make paneer. You can’t just run out and buy a block at your nearest Indian grocery either. You need soft, malleable paneer to do rasmalai. Thankfully, it’s pretty easy. Just add 1/4 cup of lemon juice to 4 cups of boiling milk. Strain it in cheesecloth once the fat separates from the whey. Let it drain for about an hour.

Step Two: Knead and Form
After years of honing European and American kitchen skills, I confront techniques that just shouldn’t work – but do – with Indian home cooking. Kneading and forming what’s essentially ricotta into small patties is one.

It *can* be done.

It *can* be done.

You’ll notice that mine are a little uneven. They’re also cracked around the edges. Lesson learned: my paneer was on the dry side and I’m pretty sure I didn’t knead it enough since it wasn’t quite rolling itself into dough. To be honest, I forgot that it was supposed to do that.

If you watch Manjula’s instructional video for rasgulla, you’ll see the magic. Do note that a dough scraper is useful for this step. I used my Ventra card since that’s about all it’s good for.

Step Three: Pressure Cooker

I’ve never owned a pressure cooker. After tales of confirmed explosions and lentils on the ceiling, I’m wary of this bit of equipment, which is incredibly necessary to many home recipes. How necessary? In the same way U.S. parents give their kids frying pans upon moving out, Indian parents gift pressure cookers. Professor X toted one all the way from Kolkata to Chicago, then promptly lost the whistle.

Hissin' and spittin' like the Nechung oracle.

Hissin’ and spittin’ like the Nechung oracle.

My sense of cooking times is still a little off, but nothing has gone wrong yet. I waited seven minutes per instruction and voila!

Holy shit! It worked!

Holy shit! It worked!

If you stop at this point in the recipe – where you cook paneer balls in sugar syrup – you will have rasgulla. I pressed on and cooked them one last time in sweetened milk with cardamom, then garnished with chopped pistachios.

Results
I forgot to take pictures. However, none of them broke and I didn’t scald the milk sour. The finished product squeaked a little – much like cheese curds – while I chewed. I suspect that less draining and more kneading will remedy this. Professor X ate enthusiastically as it’s been more than a year since our last rasmalai experience. His official statement was “These are really good for your first time.”

In the end, rasmalai aren’t as hard as suspected. They take a bit of time and an experienced hand to determine the proper texture, which is why most folks leave rasmalai preparation to professionals. I’m nowhere near ready to open Gulab – my imaginary Indian sweet shop in Corvallis – but can easily scratch the itch when we crave variety.

Agritourism entered my radar via The New York Times and my friends over at Eating the World. People can show up to participating farms and have a full course meal made with ingredients grown on site. The idea of something that viscerally fresh and immediately inspired piqued my interest. Plus, these places were in Italy. Italy always has my attention. Little did I know, Gathering Together Farm – makers of the best damn doughnuts I’ve ever had and a mere 15 minute drive to Philomath – is one such location.

Picture from "Barn and Table" - front of the house

Picture from “Barn and Table” – front of the house

Dinner service is held only on Thursday and Friday, so when Professor X announced that we should go out for our anniversary, which we both forgot, we decided to wait a little longer to celebrate. We already missed it by two days after all.

Photo from "Oregon Live" - note the pizza oven

Photo from “Oregon Live” – note the pizza oven

We were seated next to the pizza oven, which Professor X found fascinating. While we waited for our food, I remarked that I want to build a small-scale version if we ever have our own backyard. Just as I was about to compromise on chickens and a goat in exchange for a brick oven, the appetizers arrived.

For him: salumi plate of duck rillette, duck liver pate, and pork and pistacho terrine.
For me: antipasti trio of melon with mint and sea salt, chioggia beet salad with balsamic and mint, eggplant and celery salad with balsamic and oregano. Both came with house bread drizzled lightly with olive oil.

(I’ll skip a detailed taste description because you can only use word like “fresh” and “local” so many times before you sound like a wank. We may have moved to the West coast, but we remain staunchly urban Midwest in many respects, as odd as that sounds when one considers that he grew up in India. From here on out, assume it was all amazing.)

Something flitted by our window out of the darkness as the entrees arrived. “Oh look. A bat,” I murrmurred.

“What?!” said Professor X.

“A bat. Out there,” I replied casually over my wineglass.

He began to check for gaps in the sliding glass doors. The country still freaks him out a bit.

Main for him: flat iron steak (medium well) over smashed potatoes with green beans and basil aioli. (Ed. note: Professor X says the potatoes could use a touch more salt.)
Main for me: leg of lamb (medium rare) over polenta with zucchini and tomatoes.

We had assured the waitress that we’d get dessert, but, when it came time, there was no way we could cram anymore food into our face holes. The selections that night included strawberry something with creme anglaise and chocolate something else with creme chantilly. We finished our wine and wandered off to the car, where we stared at the sky; counting stars we still aren’t used to seeing on a regular basis between snippets of why the American military tends to fail at land wars in Asia.

Overall, Gathering Together Farm’s dinner service was smashing. That semi-open air dining room with paper lanterns and fairy lights thing is totally my idea of a romantic environment. Their menu changes every week based on what’s harvested and what they can get from their livestock suppliers, so please don’t arrive expecting to find exactly what we had. You can count on Italian and French themes prepared with elegance and simplicity. They also have main selections for everyone: poultry such as duck or chicken, fish, beef or pork, and a vegetarian option. Pizzas are available as well. Appetizers are between $5 and $8. Mains range from $12 to $19.

Oh! And Ygal was right. The service is great; not Corvallis great where you’re content with receiving the right order while it’s still hot and before you starve to death, but the kind that you would expect in fine dining establishments elsewhere.

Gathering Together Farm is located at 25159 Grange Hall Rd, Philomath, OR, 97370. Lunch is served from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., Tuesday through Friday. Dinner is on Thursday and Friday, from 5:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. They also have breakfast on Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Do visit the farm stand as well – Tuesday to Saturday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. – for fresh pastries, bread, fruits, veg, and locally raised meat. If you can’t get out to Philomath, Gathering Together Farm sets up at farmers markets around the Willamette Valley. Check the website – http://www.gatheringtogetherfarm.com/#!markets/c18vh – for details.

%d bloggers like this: