Monday, February 15, 2016

Valentine's! Galentine's!

I am not a big fan of Valentine's Day. Roses leave me cold, the hoopla is something I avoid, and I got over the cutsie cards when I was a teenager.

In my view, love is something to be celebrated every day. But this year, February 14 was very special because it truly embodied a celebration of true love.

My 14 year old, Keya joked that she was celebrating 'Galentine's' and she'd started eagerly planning mid-week. Her best friend Charlotte, whom she first met at ballet class, has been sick with mononucleosis. Since it is a debilitating and highly contagious illness, Char has been home from school much longer than she or her parents wanted. The girls hadn't seen each other since the Christmas holidays. We even had to miss seeing Char on her 14th birthday earlier in February.

Through the past six weeks, the girls have stayed in touch. Keya calls and Facetimes Char every day, making sure she is all right, commiserating with her when she is down and keeping her up-to-date on the ballet audition season. Char wrote Keya a good old fashioned letter, using it to practice her cursive!

Keya's weekends in January were packed with auditions for summer ballet programs and Char unfortunately was not well enough to attend any or even come to ballet class. But the girls held each other up, one helping the other through boring days stuck at home unable to dance, the other encouraging her friend before each audition and listening to her blow-by-blow account of it after.

Now finally Char was well enough to see Keya and they came up with a plan. Let's meet under the fig tree at the library, they decided. We'll have a Valentine's Day breakfast picnic. Char was going to make her delicious gluten-free desserts but she was too tired to bake, so Keya got up Saturday morning with an idea. Before I knew what she was up to, she had taken down peanut butter chips, dark chocolate chunks and white chocolate chips from the baking cupboard.

She melted each batch of chips and layered them in cupcake papers to make her very own peanut butter cups. Then she told me about the strict diet that Char is on. No gluten, no raw vegetables, no dairy, no red meat. So she planned her menu accordingly, telling me repeatedly what we needed to avoid.

We cooked Ottolenghi's eggs in a skillet (from his cookbook, Plenty) with a base of rainbow chard and omitting the yogurt sauce. To accompany the eggs, Keya sautéed potatoes, broccoli and portobello mushrooms in olive oil and we made chicken-apple sausages, because protein is really important! Chocolate covered strawberries were my gift to the girls.

My daughter packed up the goodies in her wicker picnic basket and wrapped her gifts. Then off we headed, Keya light of heart because she was finally going to see her BAE (for those of you not up on your teen slang, that is her "Before Anyone Else"!)

Car packed with goodies for the picnic

Char was waiting for us under the tree. Keya called out to her and she walked toward us. My daughter is very critical of my photography skills these days but she loved this picture I took of the two friends meeting at long last.

Keya & Charlotte meeting after months apart

Breakfast Time

Together Again

Sweets for her Sweet

And what did I do? you might ask. I have been sick as a dog all weekend and I wanted to give the girls their space for a few hours before I had to drive Keya to dance rehearsal. So I walked across to wait at Buster's my favorite little coffee shop which Melissa, one of my BAEs, introduced me to almost two decades ago. 

A hot cup of coffee and granola for my breakfast
Too weary to work or read, I enjoyed the sunlight and watched lovers coming in, the women wearing some shade of red or pink, families with their babies, enjoying ice cream on this hot California day, cyclists, walkers. No one was alone today and I felt content for them, having their loved ones for company.

My family moved so much when I was a child that I didn't have a 'best' friend till I was almost 18. I'm glad I could give Keya a less peripatetic life. When she complained to me years ago that she didn't have a best friend, I would say, "Your best friend is just around the corner. Once you find her, that's going to be it. You'll feel you've always had each other." 

So it has. In the last three years they have known each other, Keya and Char have been through tough times, injuries and setbacks, but their love and caring, their knowledge of each other's needs and desires is ever present and enviable. 

And I smiled as I pondered the things we do for love. How simple yet essential they are, and how they create beautiful moments that make our every day a special Valentine's Day. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Spices 101: Post #3: Cardamom -- The Vanilla of India

When I lived in India, one of my least favorite spices was cardamom, which might be considered India’s national spice if such a title were being handed out. Ubiquitous across the subcontinent, cardamom finds its way into everything from masala chai to Moghlai food, from desserts to paan. Most Indians seem to love it but I shudder every time I bite into a cardamom pod or even seed. The flavor of elaichi is so intense it makes my mouth numb, rather like Szechuan peppercorns do. 

Ironically, I learned to love its flavor only after I moved to North America. That was where I discovered it had another name too: Vanilla of India. How appropriate, I thought. The spice is native to my country but its sweetness is comparable to that of the vanilla bean, the most commonly used dessert flavoring in the West. 

Both cardamom's green and black varieties are supposed to have originated where I come from, the Western Ghats. According to the Indian Spices Board, cardamom is a “perennial, herbaceous, rhizatomous plant ... often referred to as the Queen of Spices” ( India is still one of the largest producers ... but Guatemala, Sri Lanka, and Burma also produce it as well.”

In The Essential Marathi Cookbook (New Delhi: Penguin India, 2009), I explain, “  aromatic black cardamom (Amomum subulatum) seeds are used in savory dishes [like pulao, meat stew, etc]; the better flavored green (Elettaria cardamomum) work for sweet and savory recipes  Green cardamom [also] has many benefits including enhancing appetite and relieving acidity  [and] is often also used as a mouth freshener.”

Elettaria cardamomum has long been used as a medicine in Ayurveda because it contains vitamins and minerals, aids digestion, clears throat problems, cures tooth and gum infections, and is a remedy for gastrointestinal disorders. When I was newly married, I once had an upset stomach and threw up uncontrollably. I remember being surprised when my Sindhi mother-in-law made me mung and rice khichadi flavored with ghee, salt and just two spices: whole black pepper and cardamom. “Isn’t elaichi for sweets?” I asked. 

"Yes, it is," she said but explained that Sindhis added it to this khichadi because both pepper and cardamom are good for stomach ailments. Sure enough, I recovered almost immediately after eating the nourishing and therapeutic dish.

According to, a website devoted to the spice, cardamom was used by the ancient Greeks in their cooking when Alexander the Great took the plant to Europe after his invasion of northwestern India in the 4th century BCE. The Romans followed suit and the spice made its way deep into Europe, becoming popular in continental kitchens from Sweden to Spain. 

In Indian cookery, I find that cardamom is too prevalent for my taste; it's rare to find a dessert that isn’t flavored with its aromatic sweetness, be it sevayachi kheer (vermicelli kheer) or gulab jamun (milk dumplings in a cardamom-rose water syrup)Then one day, a friend introduced me to a Swedish bakery in my small California town. There I discovered Semla (the singular is Semlor) cardamom-custard buns that were baked for Lent, the forty days of fasting before Easter.

Swedish Semla at Berolina Bakery, Montrose, CA

I fell in love with the delicate dough, almond paste filling and light whipped cream. And what was that floral aroma? I wondered. I was surprised to learn that it was cardamom because it was so delicate compared to what I was used to. What was different? 

It took several years of eating and baking northern European buns and pastries like Semla and the Scandinavian Julekake (Christmas cake) for me to understand. In India, cardamom is often used whole or coarsely ground. Even when ground fine, it remains in the forefront of a dish where it can get between the teeth. On the other hand, European baked goods use a fine cardamom powder and something about mixing the spice into a dough mutes its intensity. I prefer this delicate, nuanced taste. 

I started making my own version of cardamom cookies every winter. I call them Vanilla of India shortbread. They are buttery, almond flour cookies flavored with a good measure of powdered cardamom. For a pretty Indian hue, I add Calvert’s rose syrup which turns them a delicate pink. 

Since many people in India may not have an oven in which to bake cookies, I adapted the recipe into an easy milkshake. IF you would like to try making the cookies, however, please email me at and I will gladly share the recipe. You can also try making the milkshake below. Let me know how it turns out.

Vanilla of India Milkshake

This easy recipe is a great, on-the-go breakfast or after-school drink for kids. The sweet perfume of roses pairs beautifully with cardamom for a sweetly refreshing sip.

8 oz milk
1 ripe banana, peeled
11/2 teaspoons sugar 
1/4 cup ground almonds
3/4 teaspoon powdered cardamom
1 teaspoon rose syrup (optional)
1/2 cup crushed ice

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and whip till smooth and liquefied. Pour into two to three tall glasses and garnish with a pinch of powdered cardamom.