Setting a healthy leafy green vegetable swimming in cholesterol is a mainstay of American Thanksgiving, which they must be having soon back there. I lived in the States for five Thanksgivings, and it’s a big, big deal for them: people fly all over fly-over for it. By contrast, Canadian Thanksgiving is a tepid excuse for a long-weekend, perhaps because five months of deep snow is a heavy thought that does not permit as much celebration. Here in the climatically-temperate UK there is no thanksgiving holiday, which I find begrudgingly charming, begrudgingly. But we eat stalks and stalks of brussels sprouts the two months both sides of Christmas, that’s the season. So, for Maninas’s Eating with the Seasons (December), my creamy-nutmeggy brussels sprouts:
Set a large pot of salted water to boil. Lop your sprouts off at the ankles and peel away their dirty little jackets. Now slice each in two, vertically and with little compassion. At the roll of the boil, dump them in and set your kitchen timer to six minutes. Do not let them boil a seventh minute, for the sprouts’ own acids would use that extra minute to strip the last atoms of magnesium out of the remaining chlorophyll-a, the macro-effect being to turn your bright green spouts a sad greeny-grey. So when the beep sounds drain the sprouts like a madman, stir in a bit of cream, grate a little nutmeg over them and toss in a pinch of sea salt. Bring to table, admonishing one and all to eat their brussels sprouts.
What am I thankful for this year? Um, a deceleration in food-price inflation. It’s the silver lining of an economy going down the toilet with a foul smell, not unlike the smell of overcooked brassica. Six minutes, people, six minutes.
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For all I know, it’s ‘palak pakora.’ Pakora was suggested by the letter home to parents as a buffet food for the school Eid party. This surprised me, as I think of parkora as Hindu, but the chick pea fritter extends throughout the subcontinent, and I believe that everyone eats them. Ashamedly, I have no idea what ingredients might make a pakora more typical of Bangladesh or of Pakistan rather than Tamil-Nadu, so I made them as I always do. I expect that vegetarian pakora was suggested by the school because it neatly skips the issue of halal, which might vex the non-Muslim parents, and thereafter by extension the Muslim parents, too.
Pakoras are very quick and simple. For these I sifted besan (gram, chick pea) flour with a little ground cumin and cardamon, pinches of salt at bicarbonate of soda (baking soda). I then made a paste with water, and stirred in chopped spinach, cilantro, diced red onion and green chili (not much, these were for the kiddies). I promptly deep-fried them by the tablespoon-full in sunflower oil and drained them on towel. My son dips them in yogurt. I like them with lime pickle in oil.
Otherwise, I’ve been absorbed in the markets these past weeks, watching the Fall of the Empire. I buy the FT every morning and it’s out-of-date by lunch. I hang on Robert Peston’s every word, and am consequently tickled to anticipate every calamity by twelve hours. Months ago I found rights issues fascinating (for all the good it did those banks…), but they look ho-hum these days, with half the high street evaporating and Iceland slipping beneath the North Atlantic in a hiss of leverage. I wonder if I’m too old to learn Mandarin…
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This is my version of a sweet-and-sour cabbage dish from north-eastern China (not to be confused with the more famous Chinese hot-and-sour cabbage). If you imagine this dish as Slavic cabbage rolls that have been gutted of their meat before being sent through the office shredder, you will not be too far off the mark. In its preparation, thin slices of cabbage and a little salt are first stir-fried aggressively in oil for two minutes, then covered to steam gently for five. Once the cabbage is removed from the wok, a simple sauce is made quickly there with stewed tomato, the squeeze of a mandarin orange, rice vinegar, sugar, and soy sauce, all thickened with a little cornstarch. It is a green vegetable with sauce prepared in less than fifteen minutes.
I shall leave you with the poetry of Henan-born Du Fu (712-770CE):
A poet should beware of prosperity,
Yet demons can haunt a wanderer.
Ask an unhappy ghost, throw poems to him
Where he drowned himself in the Milo River.
From ” To Li Bai at the Sky Send” by Du Fu, as translated by Witter Bynner in The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929. Li Bai was also a poet of the Tang Dynasty, and a friend of Du. The drowned poet of the verse is Qu Yuan, who wrote centuries earlier during the Warring States Period.
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This is my version of saag paneer (or palak paneer), an quick Indian side of greens with fresh cheese. The version one reconstitutes from powder in a pouch tends to be more pablum-like. When I make it at home I like mine chunky, with fried paneer and the tang of a tomato sauce. This specimen is a saute of onion, garlic, coriander, cumin, fenugreek (methi) seed, and spinach leaves to which chopped canned tomatoes have been added toward the end. Very simple, quick to do, and not at all hot, so a hit with small children. The onion and fenugreek make it seem quite sweet, actually.
Be warned that paneer is a vengeful dairy product. It hath wrath. Sweetly toasted cubes of cheese come at the price of hot oil spitting about the kitchen and the cook. For minimal spitting, buy a well-pressed block of paneer and fry the whole thing over medium heat on its two significant sides. The fried slab of paneer may be subsequently chopped, producing on each cube two nicely browned sides of six, all for minimal fuss and violence. Frying individual cubes of paneer is maddness: a volley of hot oil shrapnel will pepper your hairy forearms and set them on fire. And once that spreads to your eyebrows your evening is pretty much ruined.
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