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Bay Area peeps — trying to schedule book tour. TWO QUESTIONS:

1) I’ll be there March 4-8 for FogCon in Walnut Creek, and may have time for a book event. What bookstores / libraries would you recommend in: Marin / Sausalito / San Francisco / Oakland / Berkeley?

• I’m going to contact Omnivore, the cookbook store, later today

2) I’ll be there March 23 – 29, visiting family and friends for spring break, mostly in South Bay, but also up in Marin. What bookstores / libraries would you recommend in: South Bay and Peninsula?

• Jed mentioned Kepler’s?

Contacts particularly welcome, if you happen to know people on staff.

ALSO: If you’re willing to be part of my Bay Area book tour crew (I need a jazzier name for this!), helping to publicize and round up people to attend, would love to know that too! I’ll be sure to send you details so you don’t miss anything, and I may even be able to bring along some special treats for you. I’d love to speak to a packed room. 🙂

[goes off, brainstorming ‘book tour crew’ names. Something with a Sri Lankan mythical beast? Garudas, makaras. Won’t mean anything to most of y’all, though, so that’s a shame. Something with food? Oh, naming things is hard.]

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Content note: diet & exercise.

Today I finally started the morning with 30 min. walking on treadmill (at 2.0 speed) while doing recipe posting (instead of sitting on couch). I’ve been meaning to get back to that for weeks, and somehow every morning I just didn’t. But today I did.

And I’m now making a batch of sherried mushrooms with Swiss for an omelette this morning + egg bites for the rest of the work week. Going to grill some shrimp later today, to toss into caesar salads, etc.

I’ve been so harried for months that all my healthy habits fell by the wayside, but am determined to get them back, esp. as clothes are getting a bit tight. Bah.

Also, this is yummier than grabbing random carbs just because they’re easy and fast, and I feel physically better if I start the day with walking — more energy throughout the day, sleep better.

Just need to slow everything down a little bit overall. Breathe.

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Sri Lankan Spinach Curry

A friend asked me for a good spinach curry recipe, and I had to admit that I’ve never managed one I was happy with, so I tried working on it this weekend. I love saag / palak in restaurants, but my earlier attempts came out sort of watery and lacking in flavor; they just made me sad.

So I spent a while looking up recipes, and it seemed like most of the ones I found which might approximate restaurant saag used chopped spinach and went heavy on the cream. Which, okay, cream makes things delicious. But I was hoping to do a vegan version, and also one that was a little bit lighter and healthier, with some good fresh spinach brightness.

The key to that, I think, is the onions. And I know you’ve heard me go on about onions before, and their importance to Sri Lankan cuisine, but seriously, the amount of flavor you get out of a properly cooked onion is hard to beat.

For this, I chopped a mix of red onion and shallot — you could do either separately; I just happened to have both on hand. Yellow or white onions would also be fine, but the red onion and shallots gave a sweetness and delicacy that I thought worked particularly well with the fresh spinach. (And of course, they were awfully pretty contrasting with the curry leaves and green chili as I cooked!)

After that, it was a fairly standard base approach — sauté in oil or ghee with cumin seed and mustard seed (I call for traditional black mustard seed in my recipes, but brown is really fine; I’d avoid yellow, though, as it changes the flavor noticeably) until golden. Keeping heat on medium or even medium-low will reduce the risk of burning if you’ve stepped away to chop something; it’ll take a little longer, but the onions also caramelize beautifully this way, so if you can afford the time, I’d do that.

Add garlic after a bit (if you put it in with the onions initially, it’s susceptible to burning), curry leaves if you have them (there are no good substitutes, so just skip if not), and chopped green chili. (I didn’t have fresh ginger on hand, but if I did, I would have added some with the onions. Since I didn’t, I added a t. of ground ginger later in the dish, with the turmeric and salt.)

This basic approach is what I’d recommend for most of our vegetable curries, and indeed, for curries in general.

I’ve found over the past few years of talking to folks about their cooking habits that a lot of people skip the onions in a dish, or reduce the amount dramatically, not realizing that they’re the base of the flavor. That applies to Italian spaghetti sauce as much as to Sri Lankan curry.

I know chopping onions is a bit of a pain, but it can’t be beat for depth of flavor. There’s a reason why cooking school makes aspiring chefs start with chopping mounds and mounds and mounds of onions. 


So once you have the seasoned onions cooked down nicely (see previous post), the next step is to add some more spices — turmeric and salt are really all you need at this point. And then you could use chopped frozen spinach, but if you have fresh baby spinach, it’s lovely — I dumped two bags in here.

You basically can’t stir them at this point without lots of spinach falling out of your pan (I tried), but if you’re just patient and let it be, within a few minutes the spinach will have reduced enough to stir into the onions for a few more minutes.

You could stop the recipe at this point if you’re aiming for super-healthy low-calorie greens, and it would be tasty! But I definitely wanted a sauce, and anyway, coconut makes things better. So I added 1 cup (half a can) of coconut milk and stirred that in too.

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You’re almost done at this point — the last step, always, is to check the seasonings. I’ve been surprised to learn, over the last few years of working on the cookbook, how many people are intimidated by phrases like ‘salt to taste.’

As a very rough estimate, most ‘feed 4-6 people’ dishes I use call for a teaspoon of salt for the pot, so if you’re really not sure, I’d go with something like that.

(Better to undersalt than over, so if you’re not sure, start with 1/2 a teaspoon — you can always add more, but you can’t take salt out of the curry!

If you DO oversalt, that’s tricky to fix — if it’s a dish where you can add potatoes, I’d do that (you can cut them up and cook them in the microwave separately, or boil them, so that you’re adding cooked potatoes to the dish, rather than raw potatoes which will make the whole dish cook for an extra 20-30 minutes, dulling the overall flavors.

Alternately, make a second batch of the dish, without salt. Combine them, so the salt flavors the whole thing more evenly. And if you have too much for your needs, then freeze some. That’s a lot of work, though, and requires you to have enough ingredients on hand to do this. Or you can freeze the over-salted batch to fix on another day, labelling appropriately. Yes, I’ve done this. Have I mentioned that I *hate* wasting food?)

I always take a little bit of sauce at the end, dab it on the back of my left hand, and lick it up to taste. Sometimes it’s perfect; sometimes it wants a little more salt. For this one, I added another 1/2 t. of salt, and then a T of fresh-squeezed lime juice. (Bottled is fine if you don’t have fresh on hand.)

Be a little careful adding lemon or lime if you’re using cream instead of coconut milk — when acid hits hot dairy, it tends to curdle. You’ll make cheese, which is another post altogether. So stir in the cream or coconut milk, let it cook and blend with the other ingredients for a few minutes, make sure your heat is at medium and not boiling over, and THEN add the lime juice.

The result will be glorious.  Enjoy with rice and curry, or as we did this weekend, spread on naan and toasted as delicious flatbread / pizza.

Will post actual recipe in next post, with measurements.

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Part 3

Sri Lankan Spinach Curry
(30 minutes, serves 4; gluten-free, vegan)

(This is the actual recipe — see previous two posts for Cook’s Illustrated-style explication of recipe development + paean to onions.)

2 medium onions (preferably red), chopped fine
2 T oil or ghee
1 t. black mustard seed
1 t. cumin seed
1 T ginger, chopped
1 dozen curry leaves
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 t. salt
1/2 t. turmeric
22 ounces baby spinach (2 bags)
1 c. coconut milk
1 T lime juice

1. Sauté onions in oil or ghee over medium heat. Add mustard seed, cumin seed, ginger, and curry leaves.

2. After a few minutes, add chopped garlic, salt, and turmeric, and continue cooking until golden-translucent, stirring as needed, about 15 minutes total.

3. Add spinach to pan (in two batches if necessary, depending on size of pan), let cook down for a few minutes. When reduced, stir into onions and cook for a few more minutes.

4. Add coconut milk and stir; add lime juice and stir. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed. Serve hot with rice or roti.


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I could photograph this spinach curry ALL DAY. 

(And hey, ten years in, my zinc island countertop really has weathered and patinated the way I’d hoped. Makes me so happy. (It’s not heat-proof, though, so use with care.))

(Sri Lankan spinach curry recipe in previous post.)

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Our Valentine’s weekend brunch, courtesy Kavya.

(How much mess was generated in this process? So much. Did we make her clean it up? Not this time — we’re mostly working on her being confident in the kitchen right now; we’ll get to ‘clean as you go’ when she’s a little steadier on the actual cooking part. Our Valentine’s present to her was silently cleaning it all up later in the day…  )

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Kev and I mostly haven’t done Valentine’s Day gifts, in part because he was sort of anti-Valentine’s Day for a long time, and then there was the long stretch where we were breaking up and getting back together and everything was terribly confusing and often miserable and definitely not romantic. I had some rough Valentine’s Days over the years. V. disappointing holidays, often somewhat teary, in a resentful kind of way.
Then we settled into this relationship more happily and solidly (about 13 years in?), but also soon thereafter decided to have kids, and so we were very tired and also not very romantic. But finally, almost 28 years in, the kids are older and we’re less exhausted. We’re solidly happy with each other, and he actually got me a gift this year, which was very nice.
Even better, it was the best kind of gift, a gift certificate to one of my favorite nurseries. I got to pick out some roses for myself! Ebb Tide to add to the little bit of formal rose garden in the front garden, Julia Child in honor of Feast coming out this year, and Eden Climber to try on the back porch pergola.
I also got him a gift, but a v. silly one, picked up at Target on impulse when I was buying strawberries and dried fruit for dipping in chocolate. A notebook printed with geometric symbols for my mathematician, and the words “Acute Notebook” printed on top. It is a v. silly gift because he probably won’t even use it on campus because all the other mathematicians will laugh at him. Oh well.
(I got myself the other one, “Written in the Stars” with constellation print — I’m hoping to try actually writing some notes for the SF novel in it, see if it helps me think differently, more productively / imaginatively, than typing does.)
Addendum: All this reminded me of 2001, when Kevin did try to get me flowers, in the midst of a hard time for us, long-distance and not sure we were going to make it through, me in Salt Lake City in grad school, him in Chicago. I ended up writing a prose poem about it.
flowers and branches, 2001
it started on the worst kind of day, the kind of day when your boots pinch and your head aches and there’s an itch on your back just where you can’t reach it. I had no one to scratch it. he was there and I was here and it was my own choice so I couldn’t exactly complain but I certainly wasn’t happy. he had done something, I can’t remember what, to make it worse instead of making it better, and I just hurt. so I asked him to send me flowers. please. he sounded startled but agreed and that was a small victory though bitter too. nine years together and only recently had he decided that it would be acceptable to give me flowers. as long as I
didn’t take them the wrong way.
he had given me flowers twice at that point. firstly: when I was terribly sick, at the instigation of our old lover who was visiting town. she chose them, orange mums. secondly: when we were buying groceries at the small gourmet store and I asked him to buy me some flowers. he agreed. I chose them, yellow daffodils. he did pay both times, so technically they were from him. more importantly, he agreed they were
from him. baby steps.
these flowers that I asked to be sent to me were another baby step. he agreed. casually, and I wasn’t sure that he would remember. when days went by with no sign of them I assumed that he had forgotten. he didn’t often forget things but sometimes he forgot quite important things. then a message on my machine said that they had tried to deliver flowers but I hadn’t been home. then there were three days of missed messages and missed delivery attempts and after three days of this the flowers, all the flowers, started to feel like they were maybe more trouble than they were worth. he was apologetic on the phone, though he really had no control
over the situation.
finally they arrived, only two days before I was leaving town, and so there was little time to enjoy them. lilies, little red berries, tall elegant dry branches. they were rather impressive, actually, and he had chosen them himself, or at least something like them. the web page warned him that they did not guarantee the same flowers would be delivered. I determined to enjoy them, despite everything, and for two days I took very deliberate pleasure in my flowers. then I left. I thought about throwing them out before leaving. one of the lilies was already drooping, and they would be sad and dead by the time I returned three weeks later. I have an unfortunate tendency to see omens in this sort of thing, and expecting to be depressed, it didn’t seem wise to leave them to rot and greet me with foul scent and mold on my return. but they were still beautiful. I left them in the vase.
one week with him. a few days with an old lover. a little more than a week with my family. a miserable cold. when I took the taxi back from the airport I wanted nothing more than to be home, even though being home meant being alone again. I unlocked the door, turned on the light, climbed the stairs. and at the top of the stairs, the dining room, and in that room, the dining table, and on that table, the vase of flowers. the lilies had gone dry as dust, and crumbled to the touch; the red berries were dry and hollow. there was no scent. but the tall thin branches had put out fresh leaves, pale and green and very much alive. once I had cleared away the dust and rubbish, they were lovely.
my first thought was that I should make a poem about these branches, that they were just too good a metaphor to waste. something about not giving up, about how you think something’s dead, but if you just hang in there and clear away the old rubbish, you may find something beautiful, yadda yadda yadda, you know the routine, squeezed into a few lines, some good clean words, maybe some rhymes. but that was no good, really.
it was simpler than that in the end (though longer, too, unsurprisingly). those branches, those leaves — that is how I am, when I think of him. he is green leaves within me. I live in the heart of winter, and despite everything, he is the spring.
January 6, 2001

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Kavya has forbidden us from getting out of bed, due to her Valentine’s weekend breakfast plans. Well, she let me get up at 7 and go get coffee and meds, since she didn’t want to start *that* early. But then I had to go back to bed.
All of which is fine, esp. since my bed is full of snoozing, purring creatures.

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Kavya has forbidden us from getting out of bed, due to her Valentine's weekend breakfast plans. Well, she let me get up at 7 and go get coffee and meds, since she didn't want to start *that* early. But then I had to go back to bed.All of which is fine, esp. since my bed is full of snoozing, purring creatures.#serendibhome

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(Can I encourage Americans to make a little extra effort to patronize Chinese restaurants esp. but also generally Asian restaurants right now? News reports that they’re getting hit with a notable downturn in customer business across the U.S. due to unfounded coronavirus fears.)

Lunch date with Kevin at Mama Thai, which is a convenient two block walk away (if that). The lunch special (small appetizer, small soup, entree) is actually too much food for us if we both order it; we ended up taking the potstickers home for Anand, who adores them.

And because I added their steamed shumai off the main menu (which I adore and cannot resist — sometimes I just get myself two orders of shumai for dinner), we ended up taking the green curry chicken and rice home too, and ate it for dinner.

I did doctor it a bit — it was a little watery for my taste (I’m guessing they have a big vat of it going for the lunch special, which is totally reasonable, but means it’s not their best cooking generally). So I cooked it down for another 5-10 minutes on the stovetop and stirred the rice in, which took it to just the concentrated spicy green goodness I was craving. I would’ve taken a photo, but I ate it too fast. 

It’s not the smilingest photo of Kevin, but I include it because he is carefully taking all the mushrooms out of his tom yum soup and putting them in my bowl. It is sad that he doesn’t appreciate mushrooms, but on the other hand, MOAR mushrooms for me…