Sri Lankan Spinach Curry

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.

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.

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.

*****

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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Starry Nights in Serendib: Tamarind-Chili Marshmallows

I think I’ve decided when I’m really pleased with a recipe, that’s when it deserves to get its own name. I tried adding another 1/2 c. of tamarind puree to my marshmallow recipe, and it’s just perfect now — that’s what it needed to get the fluffy height and soft pillowy goodness that you want in a marshmallow. I swapped out the corn syrup for honey too, and that gives a more complex, interesting flavor to play with the tamarind. Perfect. Done.

*****

Starry Nights in Serendib:
Tamarind-Chili Marshmallows, dipped in Dark Chocolate

1 c. tamarind puree
1/2 t. raw red chili powder or cayenne
3 packages unflavored gelatin
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup honey
1/4 teaspoon salt
powdered (confectioner’s) sugar
butter (for greasing the pan)
14 oz. bittersweet chocolate chips
edible gold stars and crushed red pepper for decorating

1. Combine tamarind puree with chili powder. Empty gelatin packets into bowl of stand mixer (whisk attachment), with tamarind-chili puree. Stir briefly to combine.

2. In a small saucepan (a bigger one will be heavy and hard to hold steadily at a later stage) combine water, granulated sugar, honey, and salt. Cover and cook over medium high heat for 4 minutes. Uncover and cook until the mixture reaches soft ball stage (240 degrees if you have a candy thermometer), approximately 8 minutes. Once the mixture reaches this temperature, immediately remove from heat; if it continues, it will swiftly turn into hard candy.

3. Turn mixer on low speed and, while running, slowly pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl into the gelatin mixture. (Be very careful with the sugar syrup, as it is scaldingly hot and will burn you badly if it gets on your skin.) Once you’ve added all of the syrup, increase the speed to high.

4. Continue to whip until the mixture becomes very thick and is lukewarm, approximately 12 minutes.

5. While it’s whipping, butter a large 9 x 12 pan and dust with powdered sugar. Prepare an oiled spatula.

6. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, spreading it evenly (and swiftly) with an oiled spatula.

7. Dust the top with enough of the remaining powdered sugar to lightly cover. Reserve the rest for later. Allow the marshmallows to sit uncovered for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.

8. Turn onto a board, cut into squares and dust all sides of each marshmallow with the remaining powdered sugar, using additional if necessary. May be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks, or frozen.

9. If dipping, melt chocolate (either in microwave on 50% power, stirring every 30 seconds, or over double boiler), stir until smooth. Dip each marshmallow and let dry on waxed paper. Immediately sprinkle after dipping (you can dip the whole set first) with a sprinkle of cayenne and edible stars.

*****

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Potluck cooking

Potluck cooking. In theory, one should only cook one dish for a potluck, but how can you serve beef smoore without also serving rice?  We did cashews, dried cherries, and rose essence in the rice, along with veggie broth and a stick of butter, to make it rich and indulgent.

I also pulled some jackfruit & chickpea curry out of the freezer, to make sure we had a nice vegan option to go with the rice. There aren’t a lot of vegetarians at our Midwest potlucks, I’ve found, but they’re so grateful for a yummy vegetarian dish (that isn’t just pasta or salad), it’s well worth a little extra trouble.

(Three, three dishes cooked. Ha ha ha ha ha….)

Thanks to Kev for cutting up the beef to make it easier to serve at a potluck! Best of husbands.

(The beef smoore recipe is in the cookbook. You can even do it in an Instant Pot — see my serendibkitchen.com site. The jackfruit curry is too, though without chickpeas — I’ll be posting the chickpea variation here sometime this weekend.)

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Ginger, Passionfruit & Cashew Dark Chocolates

Ginger, Passionfruit & Cashew Dark Chocolates
This is actually a reasonably healthy chocolate, I think? I was aiming for something that might be almost as healthy as trail mix, in terms of nutty protein and dried fruit, but indulgent-tasting. It came out really well! I’ve never made filled chocolates before, but it turns out that making the chocolate shells is surprisingly easy, and even fun. 🙂
I used passionfruit and ginger, because I love that combo, but you could sub in any dried fruit you liked.
NOTE: Even though there’s a photo here that shows big pieces of dried fruit in the food processor, I don’t recommend trying that, as you’ll likely just jam up your food processor and have to stop it and take everything out and reset it, the way I had to. Chop (or use scissors to cut) some first — big pieces of dried fruit are very gummy!
Ingredients:
2 c. dark chocolate chips, melted (ideally tempered in a double boiler, but microwaving at 1/2 power and stirring every 30 seconds ’til melted also works)
Filling:
• 1 c. dried passionfruit, chopped fine • 1/2 c. crystallized ginger, chopped • 1 c. roasted salted cashews, chopped • 2 T honey • 1/2 c. cocoa powder, sifted • 1/2 tsp coarse salt • zest of 1 orange • zest of 1 lime • 3 T mango juice
1. Fill mold with melted chocolate to the top, then turn it over the pan and let the chocolate drip out again. It should pour out quickly, and then you can flip it over and let what remains in the mold dry, creating a chocolate shell.
2. Combine chopped passionfruit, ginger, and cashews in food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped and mixed. Add remaining filling ingredients and pulse until well blended; it should resemble a thick paste.
3. Once the shells are dry and set, add a little bit of filling to the center of each chocolate. Pour in enough melted chocolate (re-melting or re-tempering as needed) to fill them again.
4. Let dry and set, then pop them out. Enjoy!
NOTE: You’ll have extra filling left over, quite possibly. You could make more chocolates. 🙂 But I think this would also be very nice to spoon into a brownie batter, and I might try that if we have any left over.
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Eating well, and healthy food choices

content note: exercise / healthy food choices
also: request for advice / suggestions

So, I’m planning on traveling a lot in 2020, with constructing the book tour for Feast, along with SF convention work for the SLF. Prioritizing health is surprisingly difficult to manage with this much travel. It’s become clear that at 48, my body isn’t as resilient as it used to be. I get sick much more easily, I gain weight more quickly — just maintaining my base health levels become challenging when I add travel.

That said, I also both need to travel for work, and I love traveling. Seeing new places, visiting far-flung friends and making new ones, eating local food — those are great joys in my life.

I’d honestly love to travel more; if I can figure out a way to become more of a travel & food writer, combining that with everything else I do, I’ll be thrilled. I’m also often startlingly productive with my writing while traveling — I’m writing this on the plane right now, and my agent told me that Diana Gabaldon famously writes constantly in taxis while traveling. I *think* this can all go together, and as the kids get older, I’m hoping I can start taking them along on occasion, and Kevin and Jed too.

So I NEED to find a way to travel in a healthy manner. I submit to you a photo of the available options when I arrived at baggage claim. I was feeling snack-ish, and would have been delighted to eat some of the gorgeous persimmon salad pictured on the cover of the Eating Well magazine I was reading at the time, but none of that on offer for me — chips, chips, and more chips. Chips are tasty, of course, but I can’t argue that they’re healthy options.

Once in a while, I’ll see a Farmer’s Fresh in an airport, but their business model depends on high enough traffic that the salad greens and such can turnover quickly; we looked into getting one for our library, but we don’t have enough volume for them. If I want healthy food in transit, I basically have to plan ahead and bring it with me.

Not easy with fresh greens, but not impossible, with a little strategizing. I’m going to be trying to think a lot about this. I can’t remember who it was told me about an author they knew on book tour who would pack and bring coolers of poached chicken breast with her. I’m not quite that committed, I think, but something to think about.

Some of this is money, of course. If I’m willing and able to spend a little more, I can usually find healthier food choices. Sometimes that means going to a sit-down restaurant instead of grabbing snacks from a vending machine. I’m going to try to prioritize budgeting for that whenever possible, because if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything. My dad the doctor used to say that to me, and more and more, it’s clear that’s more true than I’d like it to be.

I had a lot of conversations at this conventions with other writers about health. Cancer really did give me a kick in the pants, you know. That was when I told Kevin that we needed to prioritize budgeting for health going forward. Physical health, mental health.

I can’t remember exactly when it was that Kev and I had our summer of weight lifting (I think before cancer, actually), where we both somehow ended up committing to it fairly seriously, and would go and workout pretty much every day, passing each other on the way to the basement to trade off time on the weights.

A friend complimented my arm muscles earlier today (thanks, Sugi ), and another told me that I was looking great. I told both of them that it’s all pretty much due to that one summer; it had lasting effects on my body. I didn’t lose pounds, but my body reshaped itself. I dropped two dress sizes, and have basically stayed at that size since, despite not really dieting or exercising steadily.

This is, of course, what all the weight-lifting books and advocates and fitness trainers will tell you — muscle burns more calories, so if you build more muscle, then you can eat more without gaining weight. And once you build it, it tends to stick around, in my experience, unless something like a serious illness lays you out.

I must have done the weight lifting before cancer, maybe the year before? Because I remember, during chemo and its attendant exhaustion, the months laying on the couch, being so frustrated, fretting that all my muscles, all that hard work, would wither away. Thankfully, they didn’t go that fast. And my doctors told me that part of why I handled chemo and surgery and radiation so well was that I was in decent physical shape to begin with.

I’m trying to get back to exercising daily. As I realized recently, I basically stopped exercising last August, when the semester started and I got intensely busy with that and Kickstarter fulfillment. I also, not coincidentally, got sick a lot more last fall than I have in a while — I kept catching colds, one after another, which slowed me down.

It’s hard to make the time to exercise, but if I don’t, I lose at least that much time to sickness, which is even less fun than lifting weights. I actually kind of like lifting weights — it’s just getting myself started again that’s hard. (It’s key that I originally started with a class, and working with a trainer; that gave me the confidence to be able to walk into a weight room and use it without feeling self-conscious, and without worrying that I’d hurt myself. Highly recommended if you’re thinking about starting lifting.)

I have a few sessions left with a personal trainer from last summer; I’m going to schedule them again now, to help myself get started again. If I had the budget, I’d meet with her three times a week; instead, I’m going to rely on tracking again, maybe a workout group or girlfriends or making a deal with Kevin — something to help keep me accountable.

I have a FB group for fitness, actually, Olympians, but it’s been a little quiet lately. Maybe time to start it up again more actively, for myself at least. Make a plan for the semester, a pledge.

Weights at least twice / week, tracking and progressing (I love watching the little numbers climb. “Today I can do 10 deadlifts of 45 pounds. Next week, it’ll be 12. The week after, I’ll bump it to 50 pounds, and drop down to 8 deadlifts, or even 6. And slowly, but steadily, progress.”

Daily cardio of some kind, too, if at all possible. I’m not sure I’m going to manage the cardio today, given travel complexities, but I did go to the hotel gym every day I was here, even when I was feeling tired and a little sick, and I walked around town whenever possible, so I did pretty well overall. And I ALWAYS felt better after exercising. I have to try to remember that.

Maybe I can go to the pool and do some laps tonight, after I get home and see the kids and eat dinner with them. I think the lap lanes are open 9-10 or so. I should check. Hmm… Learning how to swim properly has been a huge boon and a great investment in my long-term health. It took me until age 45 or so, and I still am not quite as confident as I’d like to be, but I’m so much better than I was a few years ago, and swimming is both great exercise and something I can do for the rest of my life.

And then there’s food. A salad daily, if at all possible. Salads rarely excite me as a concept, especially when I’m feeling cold, but I actually usually like them when I’m eating them; I have to try to remember that. I had Asian gingered ground chicken in lettuce wraps at the airport restaurant today, and it was a great choice, tasty and filling, giving me a good boost of energy to carry me through working on the plane back to Chicago (though twice the price of the fried egg roll option, of course).

Beyond that, I’m going to have to just try to be more conscious, and to strategize while traveling. If there’s nothing appealing in the hotel restaurant (and the prices are usually exorbitant anyway), how about walking a few blocks away to get something healthier? What delivery options are there?

That’ll often be less convenient, and if I’m really tightly scheduled with back-to-back panels, it may not be possible, so I need to plan for that too. Kind bars and granola and bison bars? Apples and clementines. Sometimes I’m craving salt — I should have a ‘go bag’ for travel already packed with salted pistachios.

I need to sit down and make a travel packing list anyway, so I don’t forget the swimsuit and sneakers and sports bra and the little cards with the body weight exercises if the hotel doesn’t have a decent gym. And yes, take all of that, even if I’m not sure I’m going to use them, even though they take up room in the suitcase and it means I have to check a bag. It’s worth it. Prioritize the hotel with a pool, even if it’s $10 / night more expensive.

My trainer suggested protein shakes that just need water added. Is there a similar thing with chicken broth? Instant oatmeal and dried fruit and nuts, since the hotel rooms usually have a way of making boiling water? What do athletes do for food on the road? I need to be much more intentional about all of this in advance, because I get anxious if I don’t have sufficient food near me me, and sometimes that leads me to making poor choices.

And of course, as a food writer and a general lover of food, I do eat out a lot, and sometimes that means I’m ordering the fries. Exercising regularly (not excessively) means I can do that on occasion with fewer qualms.

I was troubled by how often when this came up in conversation at the convention this week, people said they didn’t exercise while traveling. Maybe it’s not a big deal — maybe their health is generally good enough that their constitutions can take a few days of sedentary convention sitting at tables without much impact? But my body clearly can’t handle that these days; I start feeling terrible very quickly.

So here’s the thread where I encourage you to take care of yourselves on the road, whatever that looks like for you and your one singular beautiful body.

It’s also the thread where I invite you to give me your exercise / healthy eating while traveling / avoiding getting sick on the road suggestions.

What do you do to take care of yourselves on planes, trains, and automobiles? I’d love to make myself a list!

#serendibtravel
#serendibkitchen
#serendibwriting

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My gosh, they do feed us well here

At the commencement welcome, one of the conference chairs of SALA made a joke about how we’re going to talk well and eat well. I’m not sure I’m talking all that well (still tired and a little out of it!), but my gosh, they do feed us well here.

Breakfast & lunch for two days are included in your registration, along with a very hearty closing reception that they said could easily be your dinner that night; coffee and tea service is also laid out throughout, which has been very handy for me, as I duck out of my room, grab some hot coffee, and duck back in to work a little more.

But just look at what they’ve served us so far! (I forgot to take photos of the avocado tartine and the fig tartine at breakfast, but they were very pretty.) One slight tweak I’d suggest for the hotel — I love that they used chicken thighs instead of breast, in terms of flavor, but personally, I wouldn’t have served it on the bone for a buffet like this. Too difficult to eat while sitting on low couches, managing drinks, etc. Nothing that requires knives!

I think my favorite, flavor-wise, was the combination of the curried salmon w/ the roasted sweet potatoes. Mmmm… I liked it so much I decided to skip dessert and go back for seconds of that instead. The roasted potatoes were also perfectly done, and delish.

#serendibwriting
#serendibkitchen

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Funny travel / eating moment

Funny travel / eating moment. So yesterday, I was VERY tired, and I really just wanted some spicy Asian comfort food for dinner. Luckily, there was a Vietnamese restaurant with good reviews (Long Provincial) half a block away from my hotel. So I staggered in there, made it to a table, and ordered a dish I knew I liked, Cá Kho Tộ, which is caramelized and braised catfish.

The waiter asked if I wanted rice with that, which I mean, what kind of question is that? Does anyone actually eat this intensely flavored dish — sweet and salty and spicy — without rice? Maybe white people do? Surely Vietnamese people don’t? I don’t really know, but I was startled.

Anyway, I said yes, and he went away and came back eventually (service was a little slow; I think they were understaffed). I’d offer photos of the food at the restaurant, but they seated me in an area that was so moody and dark that I could barely see my food, much less photograph it.

Luckily, the book I had brought to read was on my Kindle; otherwise, I would’ve asked to be moved to the brightly-lit section. (Re-reading Civil Campaign, because when I’m that tired, all I want is comfort reading, and Miles being an ass and everyone he knows calling him on it is about as comforting as it gets. I love Miles, I identify intensely with Miles, but Miles is also often a very cogent warning as to how I might go horribly astray…anyway. Back to our story.)

So he brings me this beautiful big clay pot full of fish and intense sauce, and this teeny tiny bowl of rice. Hm. I started eating, but usually I don’t eat very much at any given meal (I eat many many small meals), so I only finished about a third of the fish and all of the rice.

You really needed the rice! I honestly don’t know that I could’ve borne to eat the fish & sauce otherwise, because the flavors would’ve been unpleasantly intense. But balancing each bite of delicate fish and savory sauce with an appropriate amount of rice, it was just perfect.

(Not the best Cá Kho Tộ I’ve had, and $22 was rather a lot for catfish, but eh, it’s downtown Seattle, and as I said, half a block from my hotel. I’m not complaining about the price (well done gouging the tourists, Asian peeps, say I!), and the dish itself was fine. I’d eat there again! And besides, it makes three meals for me, so it all works out. Only because of the rice, though, so onwards…)

Here’s the funniest bit, at least to me. When I’d finished, I asked him for a container to pack it up, but also, if I could have some more rice. And I swear, he almost laughed when he said yes. I can’t be sure. But when he brought back the container for the fish, he also brought back rice — TWICE AS MUCH as he’d originally served me. And he didn’t charge me for it either.

So, I dunno, because I’m not an expert in Vietnamese food, and I honestly don’t know how this dish is typically eaten in Vietnam. But I wonder if the first serving of rice was geared for white tourists, and the takeaway much larger portion was because he’d realized that I knew how to eat the dish properly…? Hmm…

Regardless, I ate half of my leftovers for first breakfast, and they were delicious. 

#serendibkitchen
#serendibtravel

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At the Thompson Seattle Bar

The best cosmo I’ve had (pomegranate instead of cranberry, and John uses citric acid instead of lime juice, to maintain the clear pink color, a trick I totally plan to try when I get home for my Sri Lankan arrack cocktail experiments!), beautifully balanced, along with a stunning presentation of my happy hour oysters (six for $6!). I even drizzled the tangy gingered sauce over the micro greens and ate those too! Thompson Seattle bar, you’ve revived me!

Funniest part? I think John may have fed me fabulously before, because ten years ago he was an apprentice chef at Charlie Trotters, where Kev and I went for an anniversary dinner that remains the best meal of my life.

#serendibkitchen
#serendibtravel

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A complicated relationship with magazines

I have this weird love-hate relationship with magazines. I’ve bought a lot of them in my time — I went through a big Martha Stewart Living phase, for example. Cook’s Illustrated is a perennial favorite. All the shelter magazines were in heavy rotation when we were renovating our house, and these days, I’m reading (well, skimming) tons of food magazines, as I think about pitching and writing essays for them, mostly to help promote the cookbook. I even fantasize about an occasional Serendib Home magazine.

This time of year, the magazines are chock-full of resolutions and ways to improve your life. There’s something so seductive about the way magazine articles promise not just to entertain, but to inform, to make your life better. And you don’t need to read a big thick book first, no! Who has time for that? Here’s a helpful tip, a life hack. Something you can read in a few minutes (illustrated with gorgeous, sexy pictures) and implement immediately.

I’m not saying it’s a big lie, exactly. But if you read several issues of say, Real Simple, in a row, you realize that they’re basically telling you the same things over and over, such as advising you to get rid of your stuff! But what if you need your stuff, and can’t afford to just buy it again when you need it?

And all while they try to sell you more stuff (explicitly in marked ads, and implicitly in hidden advertorial content), slightly more expensive than your old stuff, but just that little bit prettier or more efficient. Presumably selling you those because the real money that supports the magazine comes from ad sales.

After being introduced at Clarion by our instructor Nicola Griffith to the parts of the publisher’s promo budget that go for things like magazine ‘advertorials’, I became deeply suspicious of the magazines themselves. (Honestly, I was a little shocked when I learned that which books go face front on the shelves, or on end caps, or on the front table, are paid for by the publishers. I was very naive.) That’s a lot of why I wanted my magazines (Clean Sheets, Strange Horizons, Jaggery) to be community-supported from the beginning. Though of course, the internet ad money mostly drying up within a few years contributed to that decision too…

I do still enjoy magazines. When I read an issue of The English Garden, I often do come away with at least 2-3 ideas that I make notes on, to try to implement in my own garden. Wouldn’t these rose vines look better with clematises climbing on them, so that you have active blooms in that spot for more of the year? If my home and garden are beautiful, it’s in large part due to all the magazines I’ve consumed. Also the books and the TV shows on design, of course, which mostly aren’t selling products to you quite as intensely, but the books usually have a larger up-front cost (hooray for libraries), and TV you’re paying for in other ways.

I’m just feeling a little conflicted about writing for magazines. I want to be careful to try to write things that are worth your time to read, even if the editors decide to pair my recipe for Instapot chicken curry with a feature spread on ‘the three best Instapots, ranked!’ A feature that was probably paid for by those particular Instapot manufacturers.

I can’t be too precious about that structure; it’d be hypocritical. That ad money is what lets the magazine exist, and what lets them pay me for my essay. And of course, I’m mostly writing my essay in the hopes that people like it enough that they read my bio at the end, notice that I have a cookbook for sale, and think “Oh, I want to buy that!” Capitalism, hmph. I wish I could just GIVE everyone copies of the cookbook. In the post-capitalist utopia to come, perhaps.

Just — I hope people are aware that so much of what these magazines are selling (peace, calm, an organized home, world cuisine recipes your children will adore), often require more money to achieve easily.

Quick tip! Buying a host of beautiful squared off, stackable glass jars will make your kitchen spices look much more organized, clean, and aesthetically pleasing, like something in a magazine! But those gorgeous square jars (oh, Container Store, I can’t quit you…) will also cost a lot more than recycling the spaghetti sauce jars and bouillon cube jars, the kind my mother uses to hold her spices.

Plus, if you display those spice jars on open shelves near the stove, you’d better be able to afford the time to clean them of accumulated kitchen grease and dust at least quarterly — monthly would be better. You need to afford the time yourself, or be able to afford to pay something else to do it.

Well. I don’t mean to be too dreary and fun-spoiling. And I’m not undoing capitalism today. But I can at least try to think about what aspects of the things I do can be replicated without spending a lot of money or time. And I can think about what makes for good design, which doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be expensive.

Mostly I can try to keep talking about this issue, every once in a while at least, because the last thing I want is for someone to see a beautiful photo of my food, or my kitchen, or my garden, and beat themselves up because they struggle to achieve the same. It’s not you — it’s the system, and in particular, the way the economic divide has widened in the last decades.

Maybe a magazine piece can offer a tiny bit of help, though, if done well. A new practice that clicks, and turns into a rewarding habit?

A little easing of the road, a new perspective, a spot of beauty. That’s something to strive for.

#serendibhome
#serendibkitchen

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Sunday Dinner

Kavi forbid cooking pictures yesterday, because her hair was a mess (I may have made her pull it back in the kitchen with a carabiner clip because that’s all that was handy), but the first Sunday night dinner went reasonably well.

Anand got to pick, so we went with lasagne, his favorite. Kavi browned the sausage and ground beef (maybe her first time cooking meat?), cooked down the tomatoes into sauce, and seasoned both meats and sauce with salt, pepper, Italian herbs, onion powder. Then both of them layered the sauce / noodles / meat / ricotta / mozzarella in the pan a few times.

Kevin and I mostly just talked them through the recipe (such as it is), and offered some tips, like tilting the pan to drain the excess fat from the meat and using paper towels to sop that oil up and toss it away. Covered the lasagne with foil (talking about why you’d want to use foil and not, say, plastic wrap!), stuck it in the oven at 375 for an hour. Later, removed foil, let lasagne cook an additional 15 minutes (browning the top, letting the liquid cook off), then grown-ups pulled the hot, heavy pan out of the oven and let it cool for 15 minutes on the counter while the kids set the table, before we all sat down to eat.

Anand was pretty distractible, and kept running off to watch YouTube when he didn’t have an active task, but he did come and do everything he was asked to, and I think he had fun layering the ingredients in the baking dish. He was pretty stressed yesterday about vacation break ending and school starting again today, so we were inclined to let him self-soothe with electronics as needed. We’re going to try to wean everyone off electronics for the cooking Sunday dinner time, but it’ll be a process, I think. (I had to pause my online game with Jed to later eat, and it took some willpower!)

We really should’ve made a salad, garlic bread, and dessert — there was plenty of time while the lasagne was cooking, but Kavi had a book to finish reading for school, and as I said, I had a game going, so we all dispersed instead. Luckily, there was some leftover broccoli from lunch, and Kev cut up a bell pepper, so that counted as sufficient veg. to accompany.

And then we actually:

– set the table (kids)
– got everyone water (kids)
– washed hands before dinner (everyone)
– sat down and talked together while eating (everyone)
– used utensils to eat the lasagne (everyone, even Anand, which is new for him — he is not a utensil fan, but as we said, eventually he might be asked to eat with the president, who won’t be Trump, and then he’ll need to use utensils. Or if not the president, then his grandmother (Kev’s mom), who is also big on utensils
– cleared up afterwards (mostly Kev)

There’s plenty of lasagne left for dinner tonight, and today’s lunch for the grown-ups at work, so that’s also a nice way of easing into the work week. We’ll try to plan on making enough at Sunday night dinner to cover Monday, at least.

There was an extended discussion of whether Anand was allowed to repeat phrases because he thought it was funny. Kavi first came up with the rule that he couldn’t say specific phrases, but he just kept changing the phrases (there was a lot of ‘but why?’ for example). Finally she hit on: “No deliberately annoying people at the dinner table,” and Anand laughed. While he didn’t explicitly concede the point, he did stop the repeating, which I think we all took as a win. 

It was really nice. They’re now old enough that we can have interesting conversations; I honestly didn’t have the patience for doing this with little ones, and I salute those of you who do! I know many families do dinner together every night, and we’ve never done that — we’ve always just wandered off to eat with our books and shows separately. But at least once a week, sitting together, being off electronics for a few hours, and teaching the kids some basic dinner table etiquette seems useful.

It’s a piece of the parenting project that we’ve somewhat neglected, but teaching them how to get along in community and not deliberately annoy people just because you think it’s funny seems worth the expenditure of a little effort and energy. Even if it means I have to delay the last few moves in my game. (Jed was stomping me anyway!)

Pictured: Anand demonstrating what he considers proper use of a fork…

#sundaydinner
#serendibkitchen

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