Tuesday, October 23, 2012

James Beard and Me, Indian Style

   Years ago I read an essay by the great New Yorker Magazine writer E B White  called "This is New York." It was a love letter to a place that I had never been and would not visit until I myself had become a writer and was there for business. I never forgot this essay however, and every now and then I take it out and read it, partly for the pure pleasure of reading E B White, and partly because of what he has to say about dreamers. The quote that has always stuck with me is this:

   “The city is always full of young worshipful beginners — young actors, young aspiring poets, ballerinas, painters, reporters, singers — each depending on his own brand of tonic to stay alive, each with his own stable of giants.”

   Stable of Giants. I like that. I realized when I first read it that each of us, no matter where we are  or what we aspire to, have our own stable of giants. I will never forget the first book that I read that made me want to be a writer, that made me feel I could be a writer, since there weren't a lot of writers where I came from. The book was Martin Eden by Jack London, and as I later found out that book has been the inspiration for a whole lot of people deciding to write.

   Writing is what I do for a living and also what I love, but right behind it, breathing down its' neck is cooking. Since the writing process is long and has many twists and turnings (especially the screenwriting process) cooking has become my own personal form of instant gratification. There are no "notes" in cooking. No one says, "make the eggs a little bit more prominent", "Do we really need the onions?"  "I just can't believe the baking powder would do that" or "Can't you make those beets a little edgier?" In cooking, the pork doesn't get up and leave in the middle of the dish to do another recipe. The chicken never asks what else is going to be in the dish before it agrees to go into the pot. There's a certain stability to the cooking process that I desperately need in my life. Cooking is fun, cooking is creative, and when I'm cooking it's one of the few places in my life where I'm in charge.

   Along with the writers I admire, I also have a stable of culinary giants. All I need to do is take just one look at the bookshelf in my kitchen. The oldest most battered volumes there, the ones used hardest, are by Julia Child, MFK Fisher and of course, James Beard.  What I always loved about James Beard was his way of transporting me right into the heart of his eating experience. When I read James Beard I wasn't just reading a recipe for pancakes, I was sitting with him in a diner in the Siskiyou mountains with thick steaming mugs of coffee in front of us made the old fashioned way with eggshells and eggwhites. The pancakes we were served were thick and golden brown, and 8 inches across. The chef had a checkered shirt, a three day growth of beard and his name was Danny. There was a three legged dog outside barking in the parking lot and a '56 Chevy pick up.... you get my drift.

   If you're looking for a muffin recipe, Mr. Beard is not shy about telling you that he personally doesn't think much of the muffin as a concept, or that he finds much use for them. Of course to each his own, go ahead and bake them if you wish. Here are half a dozen excellent recipes. Sucker.  I love that shit! Attitude and honesty about the food he cares so much about. That's pretty rare out there.

   So when I was asked by St Martins Press if I'd like to take a whack at some of James Beards recipes in honor of their publication of Essential James Beard Cookbook of course I said yes!

   Add to that The Califonia Olive Ranch was adding some of their excellent oils to the mix to work with, and it was an offer I couldn't refuse. I was sent a list of selected recipes of James Beard's to work with and the olive oil, and I set off to recreate them with my own sort of twist. I decided to ask a few friends to the feast including an old friend of James Beards and part of the creative team behind the founding of Bon Appetite, Cooking Light and Saveur, among others, Heikki Ratalahti. I asked him to bring along a picture of Mr. Beard.

Here's a closer look at the picture of James Beard and a friend at a party at Heikki's place in San Francisco, way back when.

   I planned a menu built around James Beard's Scallops Saute Provencal. Since scallops aren't found in India but shrimp and prawns most certainly are, I decided to add them to the original  dish and surround the whole thing with a layer of spices for a South Indian style twist.

Shrimp and Scallops Curry

Here's What You Need: 

1lb of medium sized shrimp peeled and cleaned
1 lb of bay scallops
2 medium red onions halved, and thinly sliced
6 tsp of finely chopped shallots
15 curry leaves or 5 bay leaves
9 Tbs of olive oil , I used California Olive Ranch Extra Virgin
3/4 tsp of mustard seeds
3/4 tsp of coriander seeds
3/4 tsp of turmeric powder
4 limes
6 tsp finely chopped shallots or garlic
3/4 tsp of Kashmiri chili or 1/2 and 1/2 mix of cayenne and paprika
salt to taste
3 tsps finely chopped fresh ginger
3/4 tsp of coriander powder
3/4 tsp ground black pepper
3/4 cup of coconut milk
3/4 cup of grated dried unsweetened coconut
additional 1/4  cup of olive oil
1 curry leaf or bay leaf
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Here's What To Do:

Heat 9 Tbs of olive oil in a skillet or kadhai.

When the oil is hot, add in the curry leaves, mustard seeds and coriander seeds.

When they start to sizzle and pop, add in the red onions and saute them until they turn a light golden brown.

Add in some salt and the ginger and shallots or garlic. Stir everything around for a couple of seconds.
Add in the chili, turmeric,black pepper and coriander.

Stir it all up, and  sprinkle in the dried coconut.
Stir it up.
Add in the coconut milk. If you need to add a bit more you can. What you're looking for here is a nice thick mixture.

This part of the recipe can be made ahead. Shrimp and scallops cook literally in minutes and seconds, so the dish is finished right before it's served.

Finishing it up:

Dry your scallops before cooking them by placing them on a paper towel. This helps to absorb the water in them. The water is a contributor to scallops that taste like eraser tips.
Set the scallops aside.
Heat a 1/4 cup of oil in a skillet.
While the oil is heating, warm up the coconut sauce.
When the coconut sauce is nice and warm, add in the shrimp and cook them until they turn a light pink. This usually takes only a few (like 3 or 4) minutes.

When the olive oil in the other pan is hot hot hot, add in the dry scallops, a curry leaf and a bit of the chopped cilantro.

Stir them around quickly, to cook them.

They're done when they've lost their translucent look.
Add the cooked scallops to the pan containing the shrimp coconut mixture.

Squeeze the juice of 1 lime over the dish and stir it up.
Put the mixture on a platter to serve.
Place quartered lime wedges around the dish.
Sprinkle chopped cilantro over the top.

I served this  dish with a lemon cashew rice, a simple green salad with caramelized shallot, mango and mustard seeds, and a vinaigrette dressing made with California Olive Ranchs' Arbequina Oil...

...James Beards' never fail Buttermilk Biscuits  and green beans with water chestnuts.
 For dessert, I baked James Beards almond torte and paired it with a saffron pistachio ice cream.

This dessert is a whole other story.
We topped things off with hot chai and a selection of excellent chocolates from Cocoa Planet.

   We lingered around the table till about 12:30. That's when you know the dinner party is working. I asked Heikki what he thought Mr. Beard would have made of all this. "He'd have loved it," he said. "He always liked to have fun."

   So do I, and I want to thank St. Martins' Press for inviting me into this celebration of James Beard, and The California Olive Ranch for providing me with some stunning oils to work with.
Coming up next, James Beards Classic Almond Torte, with a little help from Fran (my mom). Follow along on Twitter @kathygori



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