Thursday, April 16, 2009

Celebration of Life and Death

Initially this post was about the birthdays we celebrated in March. But an unexpected turn of things also calls for celebration of life.

Surprisingly both the husband and I share the birthday month, there are 11 days between ours. With some years in between but the days are more important. His is first so the dinner planning was ad hoc, at best. While grocery shopping I bought chorizo, shrimp and cod for a Mexican dinner. And the one question he asked on the day was if I would be interested in going to a local Italian restaurant we’ve heard about but have never tried. Shocked and thrown off, I convinced him to stay home for dinner. While he napped, I started preparing shrimp and fish tacos with a side of black bean and chorizo soup. His favorite dish of all time is shrimp tacos.

Black bean and Chorizo Soup, my version adapted from the original

1 cup dried black beans, soaked overnight and cooked in a pressure cooker
Drizzle of olive oil
1 (3- to 4-ounce) link of Mexican chorizo, sliced ¼ inch
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 to 3 cups chicken stock, homemade preferred
Garnish: rounds of thinly sliced lemon and chopped fresh cilantro

Cook chorizo in a nonstick saucepan with olive oil on medium heat. When the meat releases oil and browns on all sides, remove it from the pan. Add onion, garlic, pepper flakes, cumin, and salt to the oil, stirring, until vegetables are softened, about 6 minutes. Add beans and stock and bring to a boil. Lower heat, stir in chorizo and simmer for 20 minutes. Partially cover the saucepan while simmering. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add additional liquid for a thinner consistency or lightly mash beans with a potato masher for thicker consistency.

For the fish tacos- I coated cod fish in milk and then in seasoned flour. The flour was seasoned with salt, cayenne, ground cumin and ground coriander. I then pan fried it in 1/2 inch of canola oil. Half way through the pan frying, the fish fell apart. Unfortunately I haven’t mastered the fish frying technique (think fish and chips) yet. Cod is very delicate and flaky so we were picking broken pieces of the fish from the serving platter to fill our tortillas. Unfortunately due to falling apart the Mexican flavors (cumin and cayenne) in the flour were lost in the frying oil.

Dessert was Opera Crème cupcakes from Bonbonerie, a local bakery/cake shop, that always fits the bill for cakes and desserts. I believe everything is made on premises by their own pastry chefs and bakers.

My birthday, on the other hand, was much different from his. Because this year it was on a Sunday, some friends suggested going out for brunch and one even offered to host. Regardless of what it would be, I knew it wouldn’t be a repeat of last year, an all-out-get-crazy night at a local dive bar to raise money for a local non profit organization, The Women’s Connection. Raising money for the local charity was fantastic, however recovering from the night was rough. Instead I opted for an afternoon get together at my place with mimosas and appetizers.

Everyone brought a variety of foods. We had (from top left- clockwise) kaala chana (black/brown chickpeas), potato gratin with wild mushrooms and goat cheese, Paddington Torte from Bonbonerie, dukkah (not pictured) with olive oil and bread and fruit salad.

Kaala Chana is a common street food in India, in the metropolitan cities but especially in Mumbai, formerly Bombay. It's simple and a winner.

1 cup dried black or brown chickpeas, soaked overnight and cooked
1 small- medium onion, finely diced
1/2 teaspoon of cumin
1/4 teaspoon of chili powder
pinch of salt, to taste
juice of 1/2 lemon

There are three methods to cook dried chickpeas or any dried beans. My favorite is to pressure cook because of the short time it takes compared to the other methods. Add soaked chickpeas to the pressure cooker with 3 times the amount of water and cook on medium high and then reduce heat to low for 15 minutes or for 4- 5 whistles. Turn off heat and allow 10- 15 minutes for it to cool and the steam to escape from the cooker. (An important note: each pressure cooker has different cooking temperatures and times, I recommend following the instruction manual over my instructions on pressure cooking!)

Another method is to cook dried beans in a saucepan. In a large saucepan, add 1 cup of soaked chickpeas to 3 cups of water (the ratio is 3:1 water:beans, plus or minus some). Bring the beans and water to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30- 45 minutes.

And finally, if time permits the simplest method is to cook the chickpeas in a crockpot. Add chickpeas to the pot with 4 cups of water and cook on low for 4-6 hours.

To test if the chickpeas are done, smash between thumb and index fingers, if it smashes easily without the firmness, they’re ready. Drain. In a medium bowl, add drained chickpeas, diced onion, cumin, chili powder and salt. Combine and taste; adjust seasonings if necessary. Add lemon juice and serve at room temperature.

Then (from top left- clockwise) there was dried figs and onion confit with goat cheese crostini, olives, almond and olive oil cake, and Vietnamese summer rolls.

Here's a recipe to serve as an appetizer or simple snack at anytime of the day.
Fig and Onion Confit, adapted from a recipe by Diane Phillips

1/3 cup unsalted butter
3 vidalia onions, chopped
3/4 cups firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 cup good, aged balsamic vinegar
6- 8 dried figs, soaked and coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon dried rosemary

In a large sauté pan on medium heat, melt butter, add the chopped onions and sauté until the onions begin to turn golden brown, 8 minutes. Reduce heat to low, add the brown sugar, vinegar, chopped figs and rosemary and simmer for 45 minutes or until the mixture is thickened like jam. Cool completely before serving on crackers or French baguette with goat cheese on side.

(pictures from my birthday are courtesy of Michelle Gatmaitan) Thank you!

Not pictured were goat cheese with crackers and bread, stuffed shells, lox cream cheese with onions and crackers and one of the best cheese from Amsterdam.

I only made kaala chana, fig and onion confit and Vietnamese summer rolls so all credit and a big thank you goes to everyone for bringing the other delicious foods. This post or a million spoken thank you’s won’t suffice in expressing how grateful I am to have friends like you in my life. I couldn’t have asked for a better day. Even the weather cooperated, it was bright and sunny, slightly chilly, but not a cloud in the sky.

And amongst the celebrations, we also celebrated life. I recently lost a grandfather, my only living grandparent. He was an independent, determined and tenacious man. At the age of 18 he left his parents’ home to pursue education and a career, unheard of in India in the 40s. And after college his perseverance and desire to work aboard landed him a job in Iraq. He loved talking about the time in a mostly Muslim country with his young bride, my grandmother, in the 1950s. He was always interested in politics, American, Indian or International. Our regular phone conversations consisted of him sharing stories of his past or our agreements and disagreements in politics. He was very opinionated about the current wars. One of his favorite political stories was about a run in with at-the-time-not- so-well- known-activist Mohandas Gandhi on a train.

Two Saturdays ago my dad called to say grandpa wasn’t doing well in the hospital because of his pneumonia, kidney failure and stomach irritability. I then decided to visit him and boarded my flight on Monday afternoon.

While there he and I talked about our home in India, culinary school and family matters. Upon leaving I held his hand tightly and kissed his forehead. When waving my final goodbye, he returned the favor and raised his hand. Sadly, little did I know that would be his last night. I arrived home at midnight on Tuesday and received the phone call on Wednesday morning, one that I wasn’t expecting so soon; at 10am on Wednesday morning my grandfather passed.

I am still mourning and recovering from the loss but understand and accept that his time was now. He lived a long and healthy life and journeyed the world with his soul mate. Although he was a strong man throughout his life I think he fell apart when my grandma passed away 7 years ago. I will always cherish all of our memories together but especially our time together on the last two days of his life.

This post is to you and for you dadaji.


liz said...

awww, i love this post. i am glad i could help you celebrate your bday, and i am also glad you got to spend some time w/ your grandpa at the end. i am sure it meant a lot to him.

Unknown said...

Sorry to hear about your Grandpa and I want to extend my condolences to you and yours.

Sounds like you had a good feast on both birthdays! The recipes and photos sound and look delicious. Thanks for sharing.

liberal foodie said...

thank you both. I appreciate the kind words.

Birthdays, yes in fact, were amazing.