Thursday, 21 May 2009

words for portland and polenta


where everyone plays the banjo, makes their own pie crust, and has a tattoo.


where I am wooed by nettle pesto, oak-aged beers, and enough versions of the humble tea leaf to shock Buddha himself.

It's really a grand place, when it's sunny and everything is green and lush and there is always more good food and drink to be had.

Phenomenally flakey rhubarb hand pies, a rustic square pie of super tangy rhubarb and a few choice strawberries baked by yours truly, and carrot cupcakes were just a few of the nibbles from the weekend, a weekend that ended in a feast of food that easily topped all of these delicious treats.

My sister Laila's best friend and roommate Lila, happens to be half Indian. And happens to have a mother who is an awesome cook, and can whip out a feast without staining her silk sari or even breaking a sweat.

A Gujarati meal, from the Gujarat region of Indian, Lila's mom put us all to shame with the simplicity of her garbanzo curry, the flavors of her fried rice with cardomom and cashews, the perfect puffiness of her puris.

Now, I meant to come here with a recipe. And I mean to, soon enough. I've been planning on making the Hemsell family chai, and begging for one or even two recipes for these dishes, but I felt like I needed to tell you about it fast, before all the details slipped away.

But even still, I feel a little bad. I mean, it's one of those things that can't really be recreated. If the puri aren't being shaped by two sets of mothers and daughters hailing from multiple countries, would they really be the same?

If they weren't being fried by a woman who just watched her daughter graduate from college, would they puff just as well and take in just enough oil for that crispy yet light crust that maintains enough tooth to scoop up mounds of curry and rice?

Would the beans sit so contentedly with the tomatoes and spices if they hadn't sat overnight while the flavors developed, as we stood around the kitchen drinking beer and thinking about making space in our bellies for the next day?

And then the fish curry - although not going with the Gujarat theme - how could that dish survive if it weren't prepared by a Texan transplanted to India, (Lila's dad) holding a stout beer in one hand and a fish shaped potholder in another?

Would the raita taste be as fresh if not made from Portland yogurt and eaten in the backyard while sitting on the lawn?

And still, I forget things. Have I mentioned the vegetables? The rice? The shiro? Oh, the shiro.

The shiro is really what I want to talk about. Because although the main meal was fabulous and delicious and mind-blowing and everyone was licking their fingers and I could not keep myself from going back again and again for more, the dishes are far from my realm of comprehension, cooking-wise at least. The spices and the methods are totally foreign to me. Maybe something to be learned in the future, with time and patience, but for now I will let turmeric be turmeric, and eat it where it is found outside of my kitchen.

But the shiro I can do.

Shiro is a sweet. Not quite a dessert, at least not in the Tess world of chocolate cakes smothered in more chocolate. Shiro is simple and satisfying and very moorish. If you don't know this word, moorish, you should learn it. It's a great word. It comes from the land of the Scots, as far as I can tell, and just refers to something to can't keep your hands off of. It might not be super fancy, or anything you'd especially notice, but you just can't get enough.

That's what shiro is. Made with semolina, milk, sugar, almonds and cardamom, it's thicker than a pudding but not quite a cake. It's like a soft, sweet, grain cake, if you can imagine. The cardamom makes it slightly exotic, the sugar brings the grain back from it's pasta origins, and the almonds (toasted and slivered) deliver a satisfying crunch that makes me go all soft inside and say to myself: more.

Kirti made her shiro with cream of wheat. Semolina in disguise. And as I was eating it, I was marveling to myself about how this simple breakfast cereal could be totally transformed with so little. And then I started to think about polenta, another grain that somehow accomplishes a smooth transition between savory and sweet. Grainier and chewier, I thought it might make a nice contrast to the sweet milkiness, even if it totally bastardized the dish by introducing something Italian.

So yes, this is a tease. I wanted to give you something Indian, and here I am with another dessert. I hope you'll forgive me, and perhaps make friends with someone who happens to be from the Gujarat region, and then be really really nice to them, and maybe they will cook you a meal.

For your sake, I hope it's able to mimic ours in even a fraction of a degree.

Bastardized Shiro, or Polenta Pudding with Cardamom

*Note: Freshly ground cardamom is  in a different league than preground. If you don't have a mortar and pestle, don't have the elbow grease, or don't have the time, use preground, but you will be missing out.

2 cups whole milk
8-10 cardamom pods, to yield  about 1 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1 tbsp butter
1/2 cup polenta
1/4 cup slivered, toasted almonds
fresh raspberries, for serving

1) Place the milk, cardamom, salt, and sugar in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil (be careful, the milk sometimes wants to boil over).

2) While the milk is heating, melt the butter in a small saucepan. Add the polenta, and quickly stir to coat. Toast the polenta about five minutes, till fragrant. Remove from heat.

3) When milk is just beginning to boil, whisk in the toasted polenta. Turn the heat down to bring the milk to a simmer, and let cook 10 to 15 minutes until milk is absorbed and polenta grains are soft.

4) Take polenta off the heat and stir in almonds. Smooth mixture into a small pan, such as a 9 by 9 brownie pan, or a pie plate (as long as it's about 3/4 to an inch thick).

5) Let cool at least ten minutes. Serve slightly warm, spooned into bowls, or let cool to room temperature, then cut into wedges or squares. Serve with a couple raspberries. Refrigerate any leftovers, which are excellent the next day.

Serves 3-4, but can easily be doubled

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