Category Archives: featured

South African Adventures

This time last year, I had just made the move to South Africa and didn’t know if I’d be coming back to the States or not.  It’s hard to believe how much has changed in one short year; I’ve moved back to the US, set up house in a new city, started graduate school and met more amazing new friends than anyone should have the right to.  It’s gone by incredibly fast, but when I was in South Africa two weeks ago it almost felt as though I’d never left.  My favorite places like Bird’s, &Union and the Biscuit Mill are still thriving, and new places like the Power and the Glory have opened up too.  The fresh food available (if you can afford it, as so many people can’t), is simply amazing.  It’s almost silly to put ‘organic’ or ‘grass-fed’ on food packaging, because that’s kind of the status quo there.  Chemicals are expensive, land isn’t in short supply and agribusiness doesn’t reign supreme as it does in the US.  You can taste this in the food; the lettuce is sweet, the avo is creamy, and the dairy, eggs and meat are far more flavorful than anything I’ve tasted in the US.  There is also no shortage of culinary talent, so when you have these spectacular ingredients combined with the creativity and skills of the chefs, your meal is quite often unforgettable.  I enjoyed many wonderful meals cooking with my family, and also out at a number of lovely restaurants in the Cape Winelands.  It’s hot this time of year–it was 110F for several days– but it’s dry, so there are very few bugs.  The outdoors becomes an extension of the indoors– you leave your windows open, you eat outside.  The Western Cape remains one of the most beautiful places I’ve been, with craggy mountains, green expanses of grape vines and olive trees, dusty purple lavender fields, the indigenous fynbos (including my favorite, proteas), and a vividly, richly blue ocean.

Franschhoek, in the heart of the Cape Winelands

Now, for the food.  We celebrated Christmas (belatedly) with my little niece Maya, so we had to make cookies for Santa.  I made a simple snickerdoodle for Maya to decorate (along with cream cheese icing that was on flavor-wise but very off in terms of texture).

decorating santa's cookies

I also made a South African version of Momofuku Milk Bar’s infamous compost cookie, using a Black Cat Peanut Brittle Bar, Otees cereal, pretzel sticks from Pick n’ Pay, Cadbury Whispers, and Lay’s Crisps.

the ingredients

I also made sure to drink Windhoek, a favorite Namibian beer:

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and Savanna, my favorite not-too-sweet cider that is beyond delicious with a slice of lemon.

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I also had enough granadilla (passionfruit) to feed a small army.  In addition to being perfectly tangy, their color combination is, to use a South African expression, stunning:

 

delicious.

We had some delicious meals in:

 

onion, peppers, baby fennel and baby corn fresh off the braai

peri-peri prawns and coconut corn on the braai

rocket and prosciutto pizza

And some exceptional meals out:

 

chicken salad with mango and coconut cream

seared beef with wasabi cream, micro-greens and rice noodles

perfect udon, so delicious that I ordered them for dessert.

malva pudding, a traditional South African dessert

It’s hard not to fall in love with the place– it’s people, culture, food, and breathtaking beauty (not to mention wonderful friends and family) keep drawing me back.  Yes, the country has problems, problems that I dealt with and experienced firsthand while living there, and that I’m studying how to remedy in graduate school.  But most of what I see is positive, and I’ll return as soon, and as often, as I can.

MexicAsian Pico de Gallo

I’ve been hit by an attack of laziness since finals ended.  After pulling three all nighters, sifting through thousands of pages of research, writing 40 pages, completing an exam and working at baked through all of it, I kind of feel like I’m allowed to be a couch potato.  I was really looking forward to vegging out at my parents’ house in Connecticut, drinking lots of tea and spending time with the friends I grew up with—people I don’t see all that often but feel like family.  I’d also see my actual family—parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and lots of cousins.  Then after Christmas, I’d head out for the highlight of my vacation: a return to South Africa, where it’s hot and summery right now, and more friends, family and good food await.

Well, I got to see some of my extended family, and some friends as well.  I had an amazing Christmas Eve dinner at Ferme, a restaurant where my friend Ian is the sous chef.  But when the weather reports confirmed that we were going to get hit hard with the blizzard, I packed up my bags, skipped my big family Christmas and headed down early to NYC to avoid getting snowed in.  And I’ve been here since then, holed up in a hotel room in Brooklyn.  I did venture out into the snow yesterday with Jing, grabbing a quick bite to eat and visiting some of my favorite Brooklyn spots from my old neighborhood (specifically Café Pedlar and Pacific Green Gourmet) and some new spots (Brooklyn Fare, which is not quite what I expected but is a welcome addition to the neighborhood anyway).  We retreated, though, when the wind gusted to 50 mph and it approached full-on whiteout conditions.   I’d never seen snow this bad before, and it didn’t bode well for my flight.  My initial departure was delayed, giving me a two-day holiday in Amsterdam before I’d be able to get on the next flight to Cape Town.  Then that flight was cancelled, and an alternate flight was found that would depart the same night and keep my Amsterdam mini-break intact.  When that was cancelled, the next best option was for me to fly out of Boston on Wednesday, two days after I was supposed to leave and a few hundred miles away from where I’m sitting right now.  Tomorrow I’m packing up again, heading back to Connecticut and then up to Boston.  So much travelling!  In the meantime, though, I’m in my hotel room, everything around me closed, all of my books read, and going slightly crazy from lack of things to do.  Not that I don’t love writing here at POR, but it’s been a bit more brain power than I’ve felt like exerting over the past few days … until now, because I’m out of options to distract myself (and rapidly exhausting even this one. Damn).

I give you, then, tomatillo and fuyu pico de gallo.  Inspired by a craving for pico but a genuine fear of winter tomatoes, I decided to use some other ingredients that aren’t quite as unappealing during the colder months: fuyu, which are actually in season now, and tomatillos … whose growing habits I know absolutely nothing about but always seem to be around the grocery store.  Pictures are scant because I made this at night when the lighting is very bad, but also because I didn’t think I’d post about this until I served it with frijoles negros, brown rice and avo the next day for lunch and was surprised by how nice it looked and tasted.  You could just as easily do this with shredded chicken, pork, shrimp (other meats will be too intense for the delicate flavors of pico and fuyu), or even tortilla chips, but I was in need of an actual meal, feeling lazy (do we sense a pattern here?) and meat averse.  I was so lazy I didn’t even cook my own rice, instead buying the frozen packets from Trader Joe’s, which I have to say are phenomenal.  The warm beans and rice, plus the heat from cayenne pepper, are all welcome in the cold, but the bright notes of citrus and fuyu add a clean, fresh element to the meal that helps to alleviate the short, grey days without making you feel weighed down.

Well, I’ve stretched out this post just as long as it’s going to go before boring all of you to death.  I promise, PROMISE that photographs of food and drink from South Africa are forthcoming—we have a picnic lined up at Boschendal that is definitely worth writing about, and I’m not lugging my camera and laptop halfway around the world and back again for nothing. Until then, wish me safe, on-time, hassle-free travels—and the same to you!

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Tomatillo-Fuyu Pico de Gallo

4 medium sized ripe fuyu persimmons, diced

4 ripe tomatillo, diced

1 medium shallot, diced

juice of 1-2 limes (fresh)

approx 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped

1/8 tsp cayenne pepper (could also use fresh chilies/jalapeños but I didn’t have any)

salt to taste

 

Mix all ingredients together.  Taste, adjust seasoning if necessary.

I served mine over warm brown rice and frijoles negros, with ¼ chopped fresh avo.

 

Fuyu! (and baked potato crisps)

I’m really, really bad at procrastinating.

Actually, that’s not true– I’m really good at it.  I’ll find that right when I’m about to sit down to work on a paper, I’ll have to clean, or catch up on emails I’ve been neglecting, or make a cup of tea, or my ultimate time-killer, putter around in the kitchen.  This “skill” is at its worst when I’m stressed out, like right now.  I have an entire book I’m supposed to read for tomorrow, a 25 page group paper on Sino-African development due in about a week, and a 25 pager on education projects in Tanzania due in two weeks.  So of course, I’m sitting here writing about cooking, cooking that I did when I really should have been papering.  In my defense, though, I did have all of these gorgeous fuyu persimmons and a ton of potatoes that I had to use before I head back up to New England for Thanksgiving.  If I hadn’t made this, they would have gone to waste (did I mention I can also rationalize anything under the sun?)!  You’re getting two super easy recipes today, and lots of pretty pictures because the lighting on Sunday morning was really exceptional.

golden brown and delicious.

Recipe #1:  Baked Potato Crisps

Ingredients:

potatoes

Maldon Sea Salt

olive oil

Pre-heat oven to 325F.  Thinly slice your potatoes– aim for nothing larger than the edge of a dime.  Any kind and size are fine, as long as the size of your slices is relatively even.  Dump slices into a bowl, toss lightly with olive oil and Maldon sea salt.  Lay out individually on a baking sheet (I covered mine with tin foil for easier cleanup).  Bake for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown.  Let cool slightly, and enjoy!

Recipe #2: Fuyus with Cinnamon

fuyu

Ingredients:

ripe fuyu persimmons

cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350F.  Thinly slice your fuyu.

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My knife was terrible so mine ended up being about two dimes thick, but you can go thinner if you’d like a crispier texture (almost like a fuyu crisp).  Mine were gummy but had a good caramel taste from being in the oven.  Note that you’ll need to keep an eye on them to adjust for cooking time.  Arrange on a baking sheet covered with tinfoil and sprinkle with cinnamon (you could also add some extra brown sugar on the top if you wish).

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Bake until the edges start to curl up.  Enjoy served warm by themselves or with vanilla ice cream, or slice into a bowl of oats with brown sugar, crushed almonds and a dash of cream.  These would also be fantastic sliced into a spinach salad with walnuts, goat cheese, slivered red onion and a mildly fruity vinaigrette (like raspberry).

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What have I been up to?

So, what have I been up to?  Not a lot of cooking, that’s for sure, but I can always eat.  So, without further ado, a short photographic journey of some of my recent food explorations, both in and out of my kitchen:

I made purple salt-roasted potatoes.  Anything purple just tastes better, and when you roast them this way and put a little bit of ketchup on them, it’s like a much, much healthier alternative to french fries.  This is a good thing when your stress level is through the roof, you’re up until all hours and you live behind a place that makes killer french fries until 4 am.

pre-roast, coated lightly with olive oil and sitting on a bed of sea salt.

the potatoes don't lose any of their beautiful purple color this way.

Then there was Fakesgiving (it means what it sounds like) with some friends from baked.  I didn’t get a ton of very good pictures, but have a look at this plate; there’s turkey, homemade stuffing, a pumpkin-ricotta pasta bake, corn-millet casserole, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts, beet hummus, salad, and all kinds of roasted root veg.  Not to make you jealous, but there was also pie and a pumpkin cheesecake for dessert.

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The next day was followed with more epic eating out at Four Sisters Restaurant, my favorite Vietnamese place, out in Falls Church.  I had phở and summer rolls too, but ate them before I remembered to take pictures (this happens more often than I’d like to admit).  I did get some good pics of the bún (a rice vermicelli noodle dish served with fresh julienned veg and a sweet/spicy fish sauce vinaigrette) and the green papaya salad. Behold:

green papaya salad.

rice vermicelli, carrots, grilled lemongrass chicken, peanuts, scallion, lettuce, fish sauce.

bún with grilled lemongrass chicken.

I also did some marketing at H-Mart, a predominantly Korean grocery.  They have amazing producing and also a great seafood section– despite the overwhelming amount of seafood, it smells like the ocean instead of fish– always a good sign.  Have a quick peek at some of the fruit and veg my friend Dan snapped with his phone:

tomatillos, with cactus leaf to the left.

rambutan!

fresh olives. asian cuisine, especially chinese cuisine, treat olives very differently from mediterranean-style food.

chilies!

fresh chickpeas-- there's usually two bright green lil guys nestled inside of each pod.

The next weekend I jumped continents, culinarily speaking, and made gorditas with some friends.  Or rather, I made pico de gallo, and my lovely friend Nathalie cooked for the rest of us.  There were homemade gorditas (like a Mexican pita pocket, made with masa de harina), refried beans, queso fresco, shredded chicken in salsa verde and a chipotle salsa, and tequila.  I cheated in the below picture and made them open-faced instead of slicing them into pockets.

resembling nothing like the kak you get from taco bell.

In the meantime, I’ve been making lots of stir-fries, eating a ton of veggie burgers and a random assortment of things cobbled together that don’t really resemble a meal in any way, shape, or form.  However, I have a serious surplus of fuyu persimmons hanging out on my countertop and hope to be making some tasty nibbles with those in the near future.  Until then …

A Last Glimpse of Summer

For any of you that follow my sporadic updates on Twitter, this past week has been less than fun on the school front.  I had a 10 page paper due last Thursday, a problem set and reading for economics yesterday, a 12 page paper due today, a project proposal due this Thursday, plus a book to read for Thursday.  I went to sleep at 6 am this morning and woke up three hours later so I could finish my portion of said project proposal.  This girl doesn’t function well on three hours of sleep, so I trekked over to baked having just rolled out of bed– in fact, still in my pajamas and slippers. I thought I timed my arrival so I would a) miss our morning coffee rush and b) not run into my morning regulars, who often see me half-functioning anyway.  Let’s just say that that didn’t go quite as planned …

In any event, my jam-packed academic schedule has left me zero time to cook.  I’ve been doing embarassing things like eating baked potatoes apple-style, relying on spoonfuls of peanut butter for protein, and microwaving mysterious rocks of frozen vegetables in an effort to consume something slightly green.  And we won’t even get into the quantity of coffee I’ve been drinking.

Since I can’t offer you a recipe or a food adventure, I leave you with this slideshow of lovely photographs I snapped at the Dupont Farmer’s Market a few weeks ago.  I didn’t have my baby Alpha at the time, but these snaps still look pretty and serve as a tasty reminder of this summer’s bounty.

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Food Trekking to Eden Center

One thing I’ve noticed about DC is that it is an epic, EPIC event to go grocery shopping.  There are no bodegas, no corner stores, no little delis or random markets tucked into places that wouldn’t necessarily qualify as a storage closet.  It’s weird that in a city this wealthy that there aren’t more easily accessibly places to get fresh food.  Compare this to New York, with it’s kickass bodegas, 24-hour organic markets and countless fruit stands—fresh food is everywhere, even though most people have kitchens the size of postage stamps.  It makes cooking here in the District a pain because you have to plan everything out in advance—no dashing across the street or around the corner to grab the one thing you forgot.  Another thing that drives me crazy (and then I’ll stop kvetching) is that there aren’t even any ethnic markets in the District (please, PLEASE correct me if I’m wrong!).  I relied wholeheartedly on a little Korean market across the street to get all of my fresh produce when I lived in Brooklyn, sometimes going there multiple times a day.  Asian markets have always been my favorite for the bounty of produce, spices, and the ability to pick something up because it looks interesting and hope for the best.  In the market situation, NYC=massive win over DC.

But … I’ve found something DC does better than New York.  Like, a lot better.  Granted, it’s a 15 minute walk, 20 minute metro ride and another 20 minute walk away, but I like to think of all of the transit as prep work for a marathon eating session.  And where is this mythical, far-off place?  Not that far, actually, if you have a car … Eden Center, in Falls Church, VA.  And what does it do better than New York?  Vietnamese food.  I know, I know, it’s sacrilege, saying that New York is lacking in a certain cuisine (especially Asian cuisine), but really, I’m not the first person who’s said it. Though of course now I can’t find that article,  so you’re just going to have to trust me on this one.

 

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Eden Center is a big, occasionally warren-like maze of shops, bakeries, restaurants, more bakeries, and more restaurants.  It does boast one traditional-style market, but you go there more for the eating than the buying of things to make later.  But enough of me talking … time for FOOD!

Oh, also, it should be noted that my partner in food crime, Jing, was with me for this excursion, and it was her Droid, patience with me and excellent directional skills that prevented us from ending up Delaware.

First up was Ngoc Anh—which actually ended up being the food highlight of the day.  There was a huge hot food bar, a menu for eating in the restaurant and a large number of Styrofoam cases with room temperature items ready for takeaway.  Jing and I picked out two takeaway items but ended up eating them in the restaurant.  First, we had a thick rice crepe, filled with dried shrimp, fresh scallions, crispy shredded green papaya topped off with crispy fried scallions.  We dipped them into a clear, liquidy sauce— not sure exactly what was in it, but there were definitely chilies, sugar, and a healthy dose of fish sauce.  The crepe was perfectly chewy and the flavors were so fresh and clean, salty, spicy, a little sweet with a ton of umami—exactly what I love about Vietnamese food.

 

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The second item we got was a summer roll.  To be clear, I love summer rolls. Love. Them.  I make, really, really good ones, but for anyone who has made them before, they’re kind of labor intensive, and they taste just that much better when they’re made for you … even if you know that yours actually would win in a contest.  Anyway, having eaten our share of summer rolls, we zeroed in on one that was a little different from the norm: it had the standard basil and mint with the delicate rice wrapper, but inside was an ultra-thin sheet of turmeric-dyed egg along with dried shrimp, Chinese sausage and more green papaya.  The peanut sauce served with it was dark and smoky—heavier than what the standard gỏi cuốn would call for but perfect for this version.

 

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You can just see how fresh the ingredients are.

 

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From there, we stopped in a few different places, scoping each out before deciding where to make our purchases.  There were a ton of places selling a selection of hot foods, but we didn’t want to overdo it our first hour there.  We visited just before the Moon Festival and stacks of mooncake tins crowded every shop and bakery.  Everywhere seemed to sell dragonfruit, steamed buns, rambutan, and green mangoes.

Next we stopped at Huong Binh Bakery and Deli, where we got a steamed bun made with pandan, filled with seasoned chicken.  Pandan is actually a leaf, and it’s extremely aromatic—the compound that gives jasmine and basmati rices their scent is also found in pandan.  The taste is … well, it’s pandan.  Slightly perfumey … hints of coconut and pineapple … it’s entirely unique and is complemented by either sweet or savory notes.  If you’ve ever seen an alarmingly green cake in an Asian bakery, it’s flavored and scented with pandan.

 

don't be scared by the green.

 

Don’t let the color scare you off, because it’s actually really good.  Most of the time.  While this bun was promising initially, it had lost its appeal once we got it home.

 

no bueno.

 

The following bakery, Song Que, was far more satisfying (it’s owned by the Four Sisters).  I got a pillowy sponge cake, which was light and fluffy on the outside but still moist and a little gooey on the inside—exactly the way I like it.  Look at the delicate structure of the cake—the very center should feel a little bit cool and moist (ick. I hate that word so if I use it, it’s significant) when you touch it so you know it hasn’t been over-baked.

 

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I also got jackfruit, which is one of my all-time favorite fruits.  It has notes of pineapple, coconut and an aftertaste of cinnamon.  It’s highly aromatic, and is enormous and beastly to look at (like a warty pineapple on steroids).  It’s not always easy to find fresh, let alone cut into manageable pieces, so when I saw this waiting for me, I pounced.  I hadn’t had jackfruit this good since I was in India.  The little fruit parcels you see here are all clustered inside the rind of the jackfruit and you just pop them off.  The flesh is firm but smooth—totally different from any other texture food I’ve ever had.  Inside is a huge seed that you chuck away—just be careful not to break a tooth on it.

 

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I also got a steamed bun filled with a sweet and salty egg custard.  Not exactly a health food, but ohmygod so good … There were tons of other foods I wanted to try there—lots of Bún dishes, more summer rolls, bubble teas, frozen ices, Bánh mì… but I exercised self control. Mainly because I want to have something new to try the next time I go back.

 

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We also found some funny translation errors (or typos?).

 

monk beans are delicious.

 

Our last purchase was at Phước Lộc.  I was tempted by the barbecued pork buns because they’re kind of like crack to me, but I decided to try something new and got two sticky rice rolls wrapped in banana leaves.

 

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One had a banana filling, the other mung bean.

 

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Jing got grilled sticky rice …

 

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… filled with banana.

 

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We had high hopes … but the banana tasted really, really odd … kind of fermented and boozy and not in a good way.  The mung bean one was okay though.  At least they’re pretty to look at.  We returned home full (stuffed, even) but overall very, very happy with the day’s eating.

If you want to know more about Vietnamese food, I’d suggest checking out Andrea Nguyen’s blog, Viet World KitchenWikipedia is also a great resource.  Or, you know, you could just eat some and learn as you go– experiential learning, if you will.

Rainbow Curry

 

from top center, clockwise: yellow mustard, red pepper, cardamom, brown mustard, turmeric, whole cumin

 

I’ve always liked Indian food but it wasn’t until my junior year of college that I got truly addicted.  I spent six weeks in Bangalore, India for school (with a week or so spent on some farms and in Mysore) and ate Indian food for every single meal of the day.  Some people, when they travel, get sick and tired of local food and suddenly crave things like toast or a Big Mac—anything that reminds them of home.  That would not be me (though I will make an exception for coffee anywhere except for India, where I’ll take a hot cup of chai any day).  My host mother in India was a phenomenal cook and introduced me to the delicious flavors of Southern Indian cooking, which is very different from the Northern style that we mostly get in the US.  Southern cooking, to me anyway, is a lot lighter than Northern cooking—it still sticks to your ribs but doesn’t leave you feeling as though you just ate a lot of (very tasty) cement.  There is a lot of coconut used in the South, and it tends to be predominantly vegetarian as the south is majority Hindu.  This recipe is loosely based on curries that Chaya, my host mom, made while in India (note: you could easily swap out the ghee/butter for sunflower or canola oil to make this vegan).  I crave curry as soon as the weather gets colder and make it in huge batches to freeze for quick dinners when I’m tired and/or lazy.  It tastes just as good as the day after I made it—curries are always better once the flavors have a chance to mingle.  See the instructions below for the scoop on “resting” time and freezing.

Note:  The recipe below is pretty spicy, so if you prefer yours less so, cut down on the chilies and pepper flakes. Alternately, serve with fresh plain yogurt or raitha to cut the heat.

 

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Rainbow Curry

Serves 4-5

4 tbsp ghee/butter

1 tbsp mustard seeds (I split this between yellow and brown but either are fine)

1 tsp red pepper flakes (adjust to spiciness preference)

½ tsp ground turmeric

1 tbsp whole cumin

5 whole dried chilies (again, adjust to spiciness preference)

3 thumb-sized chunk of fresh ginger, cut in 3 pieces

5 whole cardamom pods

4 bay leaves (dried)

4 tbsp minced shallots

1 tbsp fresh minced garlic

2 pints tomatoes, halved (canned are also okay – about 16 oz should be fine. I used multi-colored fresh for the “rainbow” effect but you don’t have to)

1-2 fresh peppers, cubed (not green)

2 tsp salt

1 cup canned coconut milk (I used low fat)

3 pounds potatoes, cubed, skin-on (again, used multi colored for the rainbow effect but any kind and color are fine)

2 cups frozen peas

 

red, orange, yellow and green baby heirlooms.

 

 

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Melt butter in a large saucepan or stock pot over medium-high heat.  Add pepper flakes, garlic and shallots and sautee until aromatic.  Add cumin and mustard seeds and sautee quickly until mustard seeds start to ‘pop’ (about 20 seconds).  Add tomatoes, salt, ginger, turmeric, bay leaves, cardamom and ginger.  Cook for about 3-4 minutes; for fresh tomatoes, cook until skins start to pucker.  Add coconut milk, peppers and potatoes and cover.  Cook for about 25-30 minutes or until potatoes are cooked through/nearly cooked through.  Stir periodically (you can add water if it looks like things are drying out a lot, though the potatoes will release a decent amount of water as they cook).  Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary during this time.  Add in peas and cook for about 2 more minutes, until peas are heated through but still retain their bright green color.  Grey peas are gross!  Remove from heat.

Curry always tastes best if it is let to sit for a bit.  Ideally I’ll make my curry in the morning and let it sit out on the stove, covered, until that night.  I’ll quickly reheat and serve over basmati rice (removing cardamom, bay leaves and whole chilies first).  Life being what it is, however, the ideal thing never happens and I usually make it the night before.  It’s fine to sit out overnight and during the day as long as you keep it covered (rules change slightly if it has meat in it).  Reheat in your microwave or on the stove.  To serve, top off with fresh coriander/cilantro.

You can also add in any number of veggies to this dish.  Mushrooms, carrots, eggplant, cauliflower … it can all go in.  If you’re using delicate veg like mushrooms, though, don’t abuse them by adding them at the beginning of the cooking process—toss them in about halfway through the 20-30 minute simmer session.  Carrots, on the other hand, take f-o-r-e-v-e-r to cook so you can add them in with the potatoes.