Saturday, March 11, 2006

In Memoriam

A year ago today, I lost a friend and colleague. I work for an international women's organization that specializes in training judicial personnel on international, regional and domestic human rights treaties and conventions. My friend oversaw several of the programs.

I got a call around 11:45 AM or so from Fox 5 News. One of their
reporters was researching the story and he was the one who broke the news to me that she was dead. At first, I just thought that it was some twisted prank call. Another colleague, went to her house to check and came back with confirmation.

We had just had an event on the night before celebrating the survival of two women from Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the staff were there. She was so beautiful that night. She was really happy. She was going through a separation with her husband and he had been such an asshole through the entire process. But on that night, she seemed to finally be moving forward. She had applied for a new appartment and would receive word about it the next day. She had finally gotten to a place where she felt like she was free of her husband. And he killed her that night.

It still doesn't seem real sometimes, even after a year. Her husband was arraigned on first degree murder charges, tried and convicted on second degree murder with a deadly weapon and sentenced to 24 years in jail.

It doesn't seem fair, 24 years for taking a life.

She is survived by her four children, three boys and one girl; her brother, sister-in-law and niece; and her parents. And by all of those who knew her and were touched by her. After her death, we received messages of condolence from all over the world.

She worked everyday so that women would have recourse from domestic violence in developing countries. She was the one who coordinated our programs in Africa and Central America. She was the sole breadwinner in her family. She worked, took care of her four children, volunteered and somehow found the time to make beautiful jewelry. She was educated; she was a feminist; she was living in one of the most prosperous nations in the world, a place that prides itself in the rule of law and order and security.

In her memory,
I work harder than ever in the cause for women's rights, for a world free of domestic violence.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

An Alternative to Throwing Out Your Christmas Tree

One day at the end of January, I got an email from a friend I hadn't seen in months. She invited me to her Christmas Tree Burning Party. It sounded intriguing and a couple of my roommates and I decided to come - fire extinguisher in hand.

I was definitely envisioning chopping the tree up and building a bonfire in her back yard and roasting marshmellows or something.
It's a little bit harder to pull off a bonfire in DC than other places since the city has a preponderance of town houses all placed close together with very little in the way of yard. But it promised to be an adventure either way.

When we got to my friend's house, she had everything ready: an open-pit, brick barbeque; the Christmas tree all chopped up into pieces; a roaring fire; and a grate for cooking the food. We helped assemble skewers of vegetables and meat and started cooking. This is definitely an option for our Christmas tree next year.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Easy Almond Cake

Ok, after a month of silence, one last entry for tonight. I recently purchased Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess. I already have her first book, How to Eat, and she is one of my favorite cookbook writers. I love the way she talks about food. Her recipes are relatively simple. She's the one I turn to for comfort food and just really satisfying desserts.

Her Easy Almond Cake is really easy and wonderfully delicious:

1 cup plus 2 tbs softened unsalted butter
1 cup plus 2 tbs softened marzipan (you can soften in the microwave)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp almond extract
zest of one orange or 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
6 large eggs
1 cup self-rising cake flour

First, you want to preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Then chop the butter and the marzipan into small cubes and put them in the bowl of a food processor with the sugar. Process until you have a paste. Add the almond extract and either the vanilla or the orange zest and process again. Add the eggs one at a time and process thoroughly after each. Add the flour and process again. Pour into a buttered and floured 10-inch pan (springform or bundt). Bake for 50 minutes.

Rhubarb Pie

I LOVE rhubarb pie. With ice cream on top? It's probably my most favorite dessert. I've heard that you can find rhubarb in the frozen foods section, but I've never encountered it. So I have to wait until the end of winter or early spring to enjoy it. I do have to admit, however, that my version, which I really enjoy, is not nearly as good as my roommate's. We use the same recipe but he has a great way with crusts and he's usually amenable to making one for me if I do happen to find rhubarb in the stores.

The recipe comes from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, which is a great general cookbook to have. It's got a little bit of everything is more approachable than Joy of Cooking. Here's the recipe, which makes enough for a top and bottom:
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
16 tbs (2 sticks) cold, unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
5-6 tbs ice water, or more if necessary

Combine the flour, salt and sugar in a large bowl and whisk for a couple of minutes until thoroughly mixed. Add the butter and cut into the flour mixture with a pastry cutter. If you do not have a pastry cutter, you can rub the butter into the flour mixture. What you want is a texture like sand with some larger bits of butter. I then put the mixture into the refrigerator for about 10 minutes. Afterwards, I stir 5 tbs of the ice water into the mixture. Depending on the humidity of the kitchen, you may need anywhere from 5 tbs to 7. You are looking for the water and the flour mixture to come together and be a little sticky. Then you want to empty the bowl onto a counter that has been lightly dusted with flour. Work the dough until it becomes smooth; it should only take a few seconds. Cut the dough in half and form it into 2 balls, wrap them in plastic wrap and put them into the freezer for 15 minutes. When you take the dough out of the freezer, you want to roll them out into 2 10-inch disks. Place one of the disks in the bottom of a 9-inch pie pan.

And now it's time for the rest of the pie:

5 cups rhubarb, washed and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 cup sugar, plus extra to dust on top
3 tbs cornstarch
pinch salt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch ground nutmeg or allspice
2 tbs unsalted butter

In a large bowl, combine the rhubarb, 1 cup sugar, cornstarch, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg or allspice. Put the rhubarb mixture in the pie pan, dot with butter and cover with the second disk of dough. Cut slits in the dough so that the pie can vent. Brush the top of the pie with milk and sprinkle with sugar. Place the pie in the refrigerator and preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Once the oven has preheated, put the pie in and cook at 450 for 10 minutes. Then turn the oven down to 350 degrees and cook the pie for an additional 40 to 50 minutes until the top of the pie is golden brown. Cool the pie on a rack for 45 minutes before serving. (Though it's just as good piping hot from the oven if you can't wait.)

Indian Food Extravaganza

I gave one of my friends an Indian cookbook and a spice grinder for Christmas this year. Since then, we had been thinking about getting together to make an Indian dinner for our friends. We got a chance to do just that in mid-February.

I have to say, Indian food is labor intensive. The recipes are ingredient heavy and time consuming. Of course, we were also making food for 15 people and had to triple our recipes, except for the cake. I think we spent 4 or 5 straight hours working 5 dishes. My friend and I divided up the labor and worked steadily throughout the afternoon. We made mulligawtawny soup, chicken korma, yellow rice with peas, potato and cauliflower curry and an almond paste cake. We used recipes from 3 cookbooks, 2 Indian cookbooks by Madhur Jaffrey and How to Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson, which had the cake recipe.

The recipe for the mulligawtawny soup is:
1 cup red split lentils, picked over, washed, and drained
5 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 medium potato
5 cloves garlic, peeled
1 1/4 inch cube fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely grated
1 1/4 cup water
1 chicken breast, boned and skinned, with a net weight of about 200g (7 oz)
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 - 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon lemon juice (you may want more)

First, the lentils were combined with chicken stock and turmeric in a heavy, medium-sized pot and were brought to a boil. After it was reached a boil, the heat was turned down, the pot was covered, with the lid just very slightly ajar, and lentils simmered for 30 minutes.

While the soup simmered, the potatoes were peeled and cut into 1/2 inch dice.
When the soup had cooked for 30 min, the potatoes were added, the pot was covered, with the lid slightly ajar again, and simmered for another 30 min.

Next, the garlic and ginger were placed into
an electric blender with 4 1/2 tbs of water and
blended into a smooth paste. We removed all the fat from the chicken breast and cut them into 1/2 inch pieces, put the chicken in a bowl, and tossed it with 1/4 tsp of the salt and some black pepper.

Once the soup base finished cooking, we pureed it, put it into a large bowl and
added the remaining 1 tsp of salt. The pot was rinsed and placed back on the burner on medium heat with some oil. When the oil was hot, the garlic-ginger paste was added along with cumin, coriander, and cayenne. When the spice mixture was slightly browned and separated from the oil, the chicken pieces were added and cooked for 2-3 minutes until the chicken
pieces turned opaque. Then we added 1 cup water and brought it to a boil and then simmered it for 3 minutes. Afterwards, we poured in the pureed soup and the lemon juice, mixed it, brought it to a simmer, and corrected the seasonings.

The chicken korma was actually really easy but was time consuming because we tripled the recipe and had to cut up 12 lbs of chicken. We decided to use skinless, boneless chicken thighs in this recipe because it's more flavorful. I also omitted the white poppy seeds because I did not have them. Instead, I pureed the ginger, garlic and shallots with a little bit of water. I also only had ground coriander, cumin, and fennel, so I used those. Here is the recipe:

2 tsp white poppy seeds, soaked in water for 2 hours
2-inch piece ginger, peeled and chopped
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
1/2 cups shallots
1 tbs whole coriander seeds
2 tsp whole cumin seeds
1/2 tsp whole fennel seeds
1 tsp whole peppercorns
4 tbs corn or peanut oil
1 whole star anise pod
1 medium stick of cinnamon
5 whole cardamom pods
1 medium onion, sliced into fine half-rings
3 1/2 lbs chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 lb potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 1/2 inch chunks
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1 1/2 inch chunks
1 medium tomato, chopped
2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
3 tbs plain yogurt
1 cup well-stirred coconut milk
1 1/2 to 2 tbs lemon juice
fresh chopped mint or cilantro to garnish

The recipe calls for pureeing the poppy seeds, their soaking liquid, the ginger, garlic and shallots into a paste. Then I ground the coriander, cumin, fennel and peppercorns.

I heated up the oil in a deep-sided skillet over medium high heat and then added the star anise, cinnamon and cardamom. Then I added the onions and cooked them until they turned reddish brown. Next, I added the ginger and shallot paste and cooked it for 2 to 3 minutes. I then reduced the heat to medium and added the ground spices and cooked them for 1 minute. After that, I added the chicken and cooked it for 6 to 7 minutes and then added the potatoes, carrots, tomato, salt and cayenne pepper. I stirred the vegetables in and then added 1 1/2 cups of water and brought this to a boil, covered the pan and cooked the mixture for 15 minutes. Then I uncovered the pan and cooked the korma for another 10 minutes to thicken the sauce. While the chicken is cooking, I mixed together the yogurt, coconut milk and lemon juice. When the sauce thickened, I added the yogurt mixture, stirred it and cooked it for an additional 5 minutes over low heat and garnished it with the cilantro or mint.

Any of these recipes would have been sufficient by themselves for a meal for 2 or 3 people. I guess I always have a habit of making too much food, especially if I am having guests over. Oh, and we had mango lassis. I love mango lassis.