Piquant and Spicy. Saturday, August 8, 2020

Anybody have any idea what this is? Patience will be rewarded and all will be revealed … later

And here’s some good news: my new book, Diary of a Detour will soon be released. In the meantime you can have a sneak preview of the introduction, also read a description of the book and first reviews.


You can also pre-order from Amazon

I’ve been lured, these past weeks, by the smells and sensations of non-Western cooking. Perhaps it is the sameness of these Covid days that has provoked a taste for the less familiar, an exposure to the surprises generated by recipes with spicy and piquant ingredients. Also, immersing myself in TV cooking shows, has sometimes surprised me by igniting sharp, vivid taste memories. Intensely teasing, provocative. On The Big Family Cooking Showdown an Indian family from London cooked a fabulous array of dishes, but the one that really set me off was shrimp biryani. I went to graduate school – a long time ago – in Glasgow and after that lived for a while in London, where at that time the best affordable restaurants in the UK were Indian (and then when I lived in Soho – Italian), so was able to enjoy various biryanis, but since then it hasn’t been much on the agenda and I have never made one. But that set me off – researching and conniving and gathering ingredients. We eat little shrimp but somehow once the desire had lodged I could entertain no substitute.

There are of course many styles of biryani, from different parts of India and adjacent countries, though it originates in Persia. The word Biryani is derived from the Persian word Birian, which means ‘fried before cooking’ and Birinj, the Persian word for rice. The cooking of rice and meat, or vegetables, separately seems fundamental – then combining them in layers in a pot for a Dum form of cooking (slow steaming).  

You can just see a shrimp tail or two peeking through the rice and the skinny caramelized onions sprinkled atop. It was worth the wait and all the pedantic preparing. It combined deliciously complex flavors with a high comfort quotient. And because the pot was capacious the rice lasted

to be enjoyed for lunch

Actually I did have a fluttering acquaintance with Indian food in Zimbabwe. My dad regularly served up what he called an authentic curry that he learned to make during the war when he was in India and Burma. Later I came to recognize this as an Anglo-Indian “curry.” But despite this travesty Dad was a curious and inventive cook, and my mum too. I often wonder where these unsophisticated farmers developed their interest in food, and foreign foods particularly, certainly not from their own parents (moreover, they never ventured beyond the African continent, apart from Dad’s war experience). Perhaps it was primarily from growing things, and in my father’s case from being exposed as a very young man to cuisines other than the British. And they read books. They also followed certain “alternative” health regimes – apple cider vinegar in a glass of warm water at breakfast every day, and Dad became a beekeeper when he read that the beeswax might benefit those with allergies (me). When I turned twenty one they could not afford to throw a party but Dad cooked a dinner for me and ten friends with eight dishes from around the world. The dish that’s always stayed with me was the Kenyan peanut chicken dish. In his last years (he died young) he was sending me in Glasgow recipes for the cookbook he was writing. They have gone missing; I mostly remember, however, his insistence that rice be washed 5 times. I was so impatient at the time. Now it is a poignant memory.

When I got to university in what was then Salisbury my eyes were opened to the colonoial-Angloness of Dad’s curry. Invited for a meal to an Indian friend’s house I experienced for the first time the splendid variety and complexity and color of Indian food. And how to eat it. We (my boyfriend, later husband, NS) became friends with Tony Rodrigues from Goa who belonged to a huge Catholic family that celebrated every birthday and christening and festive day with a party. Almost every weekend there would be a sumptuous feast of Goan delights and they made the very best chicken piri piri in Harare. NR did learn to cook a lot of dishes from these friends but I remained adamantly a non-cook, just a grateful glutton. And then, living for so long in Australia, the Asian influences were mainly from South East Asia and Japan. Now I’m considering taking an on-line class in Indian cooking. My knowledge is patchy, I can follow recipes, but don’t really have a feeling for the principles and spices.  And isn’t it about time I did?

Then there is China, and in particular those flavors of Szechuan. The dishes I miss most from our visits to Spicy City and Spicy House are the green beans and the eggplant. That slow burn after-taste! I’ve tried many recipes for the eggplant, but this time, with a bit of fineigling, I managed to approximate my memory pretty closely

I’ve tried many recipes for the eggplant, but this time, with a bit of fineigling, I managed to approximate my memory pretty closely, though how “true” that is I have no idea really. A Chinese cooking class as well?

Then there is gochujang: a taste that gets under your skin and tickles your nostrils and sends your imagination careening wildly. Here I really don’t know what I’m doing, I just know that this hot-and-sweet red Korean paste induces magic. So it found its way into these dishes

barbecued quail

Korean pancakes (with a dipping sauce) and the ubiquitous tromboncini

shishitos and a few beans that hid from and escaped the ravenous marauding rats

I adapted this from a New York Times recipe for shrimp and green beans, super quick and easy and scrumptious. You make up a paste of gochujang with soy sauce and a few other ingredients, toss your beans and shishitos, spread them on a sheet pan and broil quickly until they blister and the sauce gets jammy. Mmmm.

Today is Friday, the last day of the heaviest week of the month on the new treatment regime, when i seem to spend more time in one hospital or another than at home. When I returned last evening I felt I was drowning in the never-ending sea that is CLL.

My old friend Charlie, who I met when I first went to Australia at the age of twenty six, and who now, like me, is seventy and has Parkinsons, writes to me from Sydney. She is having to face packing up the lovely little house where she has spent so many years, where she has her art studio and garden. She writes: “How did we get here, Les? And I know we are the lucky ones – great supportive friends, a roof over our heads a warm bed to sleep in, still being able to enjoy watching our gardens grow B U T ….. I get woefully fatigued which you are very familiar with too. I still find the disjuncture between what the mind still thinks is possible and what the body can actually do pretty extra ordinary. Is it denial or disbelief ?” She expresses so well what I so often feel. Though I think too that there is an element of belief mixed in there, that keeps us going. I am both much luckier, and more of a habitual complainer. I have the prospect (albeit slim) of remission, and even now am beginning to feel, on some days, fairly OK. And even on bad days I can do loads of things that are now beyond Charlie. The march of CLL is nowhere near as relentless as that of Parkinsons, and treatment options have improved dramatically. What Charlie does achieve amazes and inspires me.

Sometimes I just want to be like I once was – kind of normal. Of course everyone is so fed up with living in the COVID-19 world and yearning for a return to normal. But as the science writer Ed Yong argues, in a brilliant but hardly comforting article in The Atlantic, How the Pandemic Defeated America,” “normal” is what got us into this fix. A normally disastrous and inequitable attitude to public health; endemic racism which has made Indigenous and Black Americans particularly vulnerable; the virtual absence of a social safety net which has forced millions of low paid workers to risk their lives.

“Normal was a world ever more prone to a pandemic but ever less ready for one. To avert another catastrophe, the U.S. needs to grapple with all the ways normal failed us.”

It’s true that we are the privileged and lucky ones, and never has it been more clear or humbling than in this crisis. I felt it especially when I got home from the hospital yesterday evening. Drowning in a sensation of drowning. Then I opened the car door. And there was my garden. Small, dusty, overgrown, but swarming and whirring with insect life.

You can see the small pomegranates forming, a yellow (turning apricot) Graham Thomas rose edging into the picture, fennel fennel everywhere, and white yarrow, a few white roses over the house, the gorgeous burgundy foliage of the Spice Zee tree, and there in the center the white Psyche cosmos that I mentioned planting out a few blogs back. Then it was tiny, now long-legged and balletic. Thank you Steve for nurturing them into existence. Next year I would love to plant them all over the front yard. Here is one in the vegetable garden, asserting elegant dreaminess in the face of powdery mildew and fizzling veg.

The show stopper in the front at this time of the year is a milkweed or asclepias, less common than the orange and red flowered tropical variety. Sprays of small pendant white flowers are tinged with purple, but it’s the soft bristly globular seed pods that stop the traffic

This is Gomphocarpus physocarpus, formerly known in botanical nomenclature as Asclepias physocarpa. Also known as Goose plant, Giant swan plant, Hairy balls, Family jewels, Oscar, Cotton-bush, Balloon plant milkweed. Both the monarch butterflies and caterpillars love and are sustained by this tall willowy plant. And kids adore them. I got the original plant from a nursery, but if anyone in San Diego or around would like seeds let me know and I’ll keep you some.

Imagine you are walking by …

And although my garden looks like a jungly mess, compare it – though to do so is of course invidious – to my neighbor’s lawn. And compare my neighbor’s lawn to what that exact same space looked like when dear Mrs Tam was alive

I miss her and hope that one day the lawn might again transmute into something we can’t yet envisage, but reminiscent of her green talent.

Spending a lot of time in the Halls of Medicine there’s lots to complain of … that arrogant young doctor who was offensively rude to both the nurses and myself; the desk staff who opted for infantilization and refused to tell me what was going on when I was kept waiting two hours for an infusion; the registrar who wouldn’t keep her mask on. But I am indeed lucky, in an excellent medical system with comprehensive insurance. And I know it isn’t in fact luck, it’s because I am white and middle class. It’s often easy to assume arrogance oneself, even if it’s the arrogance of the entitled victim.

So I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge all those health care workers who work so efficiently and cheerfully, negotiating their way through a barrage of cranky demanding patients as well as a system so bound by protocols that it’s sometimes difficult to maneuver. Like Denise the marvelous pharmacy worker who managed to get the insurance to approve the replacement of a single expensive pill that i lost because it popped out of its package and rolled around the floor. She ordered the replacement from the company and when the delivery went missing she tracked down the driver and retrieved it at the eleventh hour, all the time keeping me in touch with the unfolding drama. Or like my friends in Hillcrest Infusion. Last week there was an unexpected lull and so we were able to catch up, and I discovered that D’s father had died suddenly in the last month, and that L’s new dog got a very messy cancer. She’s been alone as her boyfriend is at sea for six weeks. She’d work in a cancer center all day and then go home and be up much of the night running a veterinary ICU unit. And you’d never know. They are always cheerful and efficient, and helpful. It’s a tough job in any time, but during COVID the stresses are massively exacerbated.

I was anticipating a lot of chagrin about the low potassium diet, but actually it’s been fine, just have to think differently and try to figure out a balance each day.

I just interrupted this to answer Marivi who arrived with a Gorgonzola bread she baked when told I couldn’t eat the chocolate cake she brought last time! (Bread and cheese, praise be the Lord, are OK)

cauliflower in a miso glaze. We had this with rice and gochujang shishitos

and finished up with a simple bowl of berries

Jeffrey made chicken stock and garnered a great deal of tender flesh which we used, little by little, in a variety of dishes:

Alas no ice cream or yoghurt or chocolate cake, but plums are fine – in a simple cake mix (recipe from Milk Street)

That would be a sweet note to end on. But my inner demons and my pugilistic propensities turn me back to the rats and other scourges in the garden, including the opening image. Rats, it seems, are everywhere in San Diego this year. Their latest crime is to devour half of the kabocha squash that was just coming ripe. I did manage to save just a few black Concord grapes by using plastic clam shells.

And so to the opening image. It is the plant we call the hydra, the invasive that plagues the garden. Its common name is Mexican Petunia (though it is not a petunia) and goes by various botanical names. The plant is attractive and the flower a lovely deep lavendar. My records tell me that I bought this as a one-gallon Ruellia brittoniana from a most reputable nursery in Vista as long ago as 2004. Has it been dormant all this time, just waiting its moment, or did it in fact travel here from another garden more recently? Whatever the answer, once it takes root it spreads tenaciously. We have been trying the attrition method, as we did with the bamboo: cutting to the ground every plant that sprouts. But the problem is that it has rhizomatic roots and so if you don’t get the whole root it will just reproduce. And as it regrows these hard knobby bases form. So Craig’s solution is to dig the whole thing out where possible. He is as tenacious as the ruellia. And who is Craig? you ask. And Peggy, and the other names entangled with this garden? Keep tuning in and the answers will be forthcoming.

But for now: do not be seduced by pretty purple flowers, think of what’s below the soil.

6 thoughts on “Piquant and Spicy. Saturday, August 8, 2020

  1. So touched by the evocation of your father cooking, and sending recipes to you in Glasgow. And smiling to think of you as the non-cook — wondering when the transformation happened. I always remember you cooking pasta for me and Peter when you were first living in LA — I was struck by your deft kitchen moves.

  2. so love seeing your garden and the food that emerges from it. I have been weeding, weeding, weeding with the help of a kind 19 year old. some planting both exotics and natives. still very tentative because my first spring is coming up. the plum is starting to blossom, the hellebore has gone mad, and everything else is on the verge. I look forward to your book! keep safe xxx

  3. The rats are especially horrific this year in the desert as well. We used to just have lovely native kangaroo rats – small with a long tail, I always felt ok about sharing the space with them. Now all of a sudden we have what I call “new york city rats” – large black ones that eat everything (they have taken seige to people car wiring – out here there are no lush gardens!). So I have been enjoying the sweeney todd fantasies of your last blog as it encouraged some of my own. I laugh and think I will know I am enlightened when the site of rat droppings and ants does not send me to murderous thoughts (not to mention actions). Always enjoy reading the blog. xx

  4. I feel like I live next door and Ambled over for a chat on your porch, smelling greenness, and eating food that you make sound so simple to prepare but is very, very exotic. Blessings on your body catching a bit of the vim in your writings. Your words—tingling .
    Barbara Bolton Brown

  5. I remember your dad, Don, so well. I recall he put in a swing in your garden. You and I used to gossip and talk crap, with one of us swinging idly on that. He used to go by and ask how the “other Les” was, that would be me, and had a gentle smile and way, then go off to do the garden. He did die too soon. I never knew him as an adult, but have a strong image of his kindness. xx

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