Monday, March 17, 2008


My dearest darlingest mother came into town last night, and I invited over a couple of friends (do you like how I say that like I have more than two friends out here? Hint: I don't.) And I made Indian food!

It was almost a disaster. But more importantly, it wasn't a disaster. Let's all look on the bright side!

Why was it so nearly catastrophic? Well, I didn't decide what I was going to make until about 3 p.m., and we hadn't gone grocery shopping for the week, so we had to do that first. Since it's just not cool to take your mom to freaking Fry's or something when she's kind enough to visit you and she lives all the way across the country and you haven't seen her in months, we went to Lee Lee's instead. Because Lee Lee's isn't just a store -- it is a destination.

If you are ever in Phoenix, you should pay a visit to Lee Lee's Oriental Supermart, at the corner of Dobson and Warner in Chandler. It is pretty much my culinary Mecca. Even my mother, who is a great cook who has lived all over the world and shopped in all kinds of places, said that she had never seen anything like it. Lee Lee's -- the biggest little ethnic shop you've ever seen.

In Lee Lee's, they have aisles designated: Soy Sauce and Fish Sauces, Pakistan, India, Korea, Thailand, The Philippine, Holland Food, Rice Cookers, China, Vietnam, Beers, Caribbean, Cookies and Biscuits. They don't discriminate: is your food of choice from Britain, or Greece, or Sri Lanka? No matter. You'll find your preferred import here. I believe I have failed to express how huge this place is. It's really freaking big.

Meat is in the back, a long butcher's station with busy men in white coats carrying giant cleavers and answering your questions in broken English. Rice is in the front, between the checkout stations and the door, stacked 5 feet high on wooden pallets, 10- and 25- and 50-pound bags of more varieties of rice than I knew existed.

Produce is dirt cheap -- apples for 39 cents a pound, when I have to search to find it for under a dollar elsewhere -- Indian Eggplant, Thai Eggplant, eggplants from all sorts of different countries, all different shapes and sizes and colors... 15 varieties of cabbage, with bok choy the only one I recognize, 5 kinds of bananas and plantains, fresh ginger in a massive pile and scoop-it-yourself bean sprouts crisp and fresh. Fresh herbs, a third of the price and three times the quality I have managed to find anywhere else. From potatoes, sweet potatoes and onions to yucca root, tamarind and edamame... I could go on.

The point is, they have almost everything. I was disappointed this Saturday by a lack of flour and yeast, but that was really it. There were lots of kinds of flour I didn't recognize at all, but I just wanted a huge sack of plain white, and a small bag of wheat. No can do, kiddo. But aside from those Western staples, they really do have everything I could ever want. And an amazing number of things I could never, ever want -- did I mention that their selection of imported foods is really incredible? I truly think they should advertise themselves as a tourist destination -- wandering around for an hour, laughing and being amazed by the diversity of things people eat, and finishing off by buying a snack food that will push your culinary boundaries -- really, I can't think of a better way to spend an afternoon.

I digress. We went to Lee Lee's and then it was 5 and my mother had to leave by 7. And I decided to make naan and samosas and dal and curried vegetables and garbanzo beans and rice pilaf and tamarind chutney and raita and mango lassis. I had an hour, and four burners.

As you can imagine, that didn't work so well. Fortunately, my mom and Steph were around to help me out, so I managed to pull off everything except for the lassis (easiest of all, kind of ironic, but by the time I should have started them I was just worn out). It was a lot of hectic-ness and mess-making and shuffling of pots and catching things on fire and setting off TWO different fire alarms -- I didn't even know we had two fire alarms! -- and we ended up eating off a flour-covered table, because there just wasn't TIME to clean it off.

Next time I have an Indian feast, I am planning ahead. I am starting the day before, and making things in advance, and it's all going to go very smoothly and we're going to be very civilized and we will eat off a tablecloth and I will be able to talk to my guests instead of running around like a chicken with my head cut off.

The food? Oh, the food was fine. It's just the preparation of it that was a nightmare. Well, that and the mess. It was such a nightmare. I wish I could plan ahead, I wish I was more organized, I wish I didn't set off fire alarms every time I try to cook, why can't I cut things without getting them all over the floor? Really! It just seems downright unreasonable.

The food? Right. The food. The dal didn't turn out to be dal -- I was all ready to start pureeing it when I decided that I was really just too busy, and they were just going to be lentils, okay? Okay. They were all right, I guess, if you like lentils. They would have been better if I'd gone the full mile and made them into real dal, but I didn't. So sue me! I don't even like lentils! (They were also really unappetizing-looking. So I won't make you look at them.) Anyway, nobody complained, so they weren't a failure... just dull and uninspired.

The samosas were pretty good. Everybody liked them, at any rate. I had to make some of them without onions for the picky-faces, but I think even those turned out okay. They were the right combinations of crispy and tender, flavorful even if they weren't quite spicy enough... pretty darn good.

Steph and Dolores did a good job shaping them, didn't they? I don't think I should even say that I made these. I made the dough and the filling, but the true credit should go to the people who rolled out the dough, shaped and filled the samosas, and deep-fried them. Thanks, ladies!

These are all pictures of leftovers, by the way. I didn't have time to breathe when they were fresh, let alone take pictures. These actually look a little bland in the pictures... more paprika and pepper needed, methinks.

William ate so many of these he made himself sick. That's not a particularly unusual occurance, so I guess it doesn't count as a terribly high compliment, but when he's rolling around clutching his stomach I have to either feel complimented or guilty... and guess what I usually choose.

The rice pilaf was pretty great. I've actually made this before, from a recipe in The New Vegetarian Epicure, and it's been tasty every time. Definitely good enough to eat by itself. I left out the onions and used raisins instead of currants, leaving a recipe somewhat like this (adapted from The New Vegetarian Epicure)

1 T oil
1 clove garlic, finely diced
1 T ginger, finely diced
1 T cumin seed
1/2 t red cayenne pepper, or 1 t curry powder, or somthing like that. I don't quite remember.
1 cup rice
1 cup vegetable broth
1 cup water
1/4 cup raisins
1 2-inch cinnamon stick, broken into small pieces

Sauté the garlic, ginger and cumin seed in your oil of choice until it smells delicious. Add the spices, then the rice, and stir until the rice is well coated. Add the broth and water, and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and add the raisins, cinnamon stick and salt. Stir well, then cover and simmer that sucker for 25 minutes. Let sit for another 5 minutes, or until the rest of dinner is done. Lift lid. Fluff. Enhale. Enjoy.

The cinnamon sticks soften up and aren't obnoxious to eat at all. They add a bit of texture, but aren't noticably crunchy or stick-like or overpowering... thank goodness.
The tamarind chutney became a tamarind dipping sauce. I was trying to reduce it, but then I got distracted and it boiled over, and then I needed that burner, so I just renamed it, took it off the heat and served it like it was. It had a nice flavor, anyway, and I'm sure it would have been a great chutney if I'd had 2 more burners and an extra thirty minutes.

The raita was my standard yogurt sauce -- cucumber, cilantro, yogurt, lime juice, coriander. It was the only dish that didn't, at some point, make me feel like hyperventilating.

The naan were pretty good -- I'd never made them before, so it was certainly fun. I'd also never made a bread that called for yogurt, so that was new and interesting. The cooking method was different, too -- I followed the New Vegetarian Epicure recipe that called for cooking them on a hot griddle 'til they were brown on the top and had puffy bubbles, then transferring them to the oven. Straight onto the rack, broil at 500 degrees until just browned on top, too -- serve.

I did manage to burn about half of them, and get melted, burnt plastic on more of them than I'd like to admit... but let's not talk about that. Let's focus on the fact that they were recognizably naan. At this point in my baking career, "recognizable" is pretty much what I am going for. "Identifiable" is pretty good, too. And these were both, as well as being pliable and rippable and fun.

Next time, I will make garlic naan. And maybe it will be both recognizable and really good. That would be awesome.

Finally, the curried vegetables and garbanzo beans, which I actually really liked. A success! Stop the presses! I think one of my favorite things about them is how colorful they are... green, red, orange, white, yellow, the brown curry paste... and they get the Andrew-the-nutritionist "Healthy" stamp of approval! Even better!

Best of all, they were stupid-easy to make. I love things that are stupid-easy... should I not say "stupid-easy?" I feel like it might offend somebody, somehow. The other day, I called myself dyslexic and then thought, "what if somebody listening right now actually is dyslexic, or knows somebody who is, and they're really offended?" I felt dreadfully guilty and apologetic for a while, even though nobody had reacted at all. Then, the next day, I transposed two numbers in a phone number for the 15th time and did it again... oh well.

Camila's Stupid-easy (and not at all authentic) Curried Vegetables and Garbanzo Beans

1 T oil
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 half-inch piece of fresh ginger, finely diced
(1 large onion, diced... I couldn't use it last night, but I bet it would be even BETTER with onions.)
1 generous tablespoon of your favorite curry paste
2 carrots, diced
Half a green bell pepper, diced
Half a red bell pepper, diced
2 zucchini/squash, diced
(You know what else would probably be good? Sweet potato, boiled 'til not quite tender and diced... yeah!)
1 can garbanzo beans, undrained.

Sauté the garlic, ginger and onions in the oil until the onions are getting translucent, or until the garlic and ginger smell awesome if you aren't using onions. Add the curry paste -- I used some tasty stuff bought at Lee Lee's, of course -- and stir around until everything is coated in yumminess. Add the carrots, and sauté for another couple of minutes. Add the bell pepper and squash, and continue to cook until the squash is just barely tender. Dump in the garbanzo beans, including the liquid, and stir well. Keep over medium heat until the garbanzos are heated through, then serve. Accept enthusiastic praise: say, "Yes, it was very difficult -- took me all day, in fact -- but that's okay, because you're worth it!"

It was so fast, so yummy... definitely a keeper. Serve it over plain white rice with some raisins and yogurt on top, and you've pretty much got the meal that took me an hour and a half of panicking to make. Wow. That's pretty depressing.

Ah well. The samosas were worth the effort, and the naan was a fun adventure. I do wish I'd made the lassis, though... they are just so delicious.

That was our Indian feastlet. Bollyfood... get it? Speaking of which, I will now leave you with my two favorite Indian things. My apologies to the grand country of India for choosing such silly things to represent it -- I respect you. Really I do.

With the utmost respect to the subcontinent, then, I offer you: No Life Without Wife (from Bride and Prejudice -- rent it!) and the Dancing Bollywood Condoms, which defy description.

You are welcome.

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