This week, because I have vacations on the brain, we’re making one of my favorite travel-friendly foods: Spicy Spam Musubi with brown rice.
Whenever I travel, I have a few rituals I like to follow. I pack a soft scarf in my bag, tuck earplugs into my pocket, and I always, always have to prepare what my husband calls a Plane Picnic. Plane Picnic involves an assortment of portable foods that can be squeezed into my over-full purse and sit at room temperature for hours before being eaten. Ideally, there would also be a variety of snacks to alleviate 10th-hour boredom, including salty, crunchy things and a sweet treat or two. But the most important component of Plane Picnic, the one that requires the most planning, is the main course.
This week, we’re making a fast, delicious, healthy, and portable breakfast: Overnight Steel-Cut Oats layered in a jar with ripe banana slices; sweet and tangy apple butter (my favorite recipe here); and rich, nutty sunflower seed butter. No more standing over a stove for upwards of half an hour, constantly stirring the pot until you get your morning oats. This recipe takes less than 10 minutes of active time. You’ll no longer have any excuse to not eat a healthy breakfast.
Rice Krispies treats are a funny business. They seem totally foolproof to make–what could be so hard about mixing Rice Krispies with melted marshmallows and butter, and then pressing them into a pan?–but I am not embarrassed (okay, a little embarrassed) to admit that it took me several tries to figure out some better techniques. This recipe yields a soft, chewy Rice Krispies treat…and instead of the usual bland bar, my version has undertones of browned butter, a deep brown sugar-caramel flavor, and a savory zing from sea salt flakes. If you don’t tell anyone that you made these changes, all they’ll probably notice is the addition of the salt. But the other additional elements create a subtle, mellow, deliciously compelling backdrop. These are definitely Rice Krispies treats for adults.
This week, we’re making Sweet & Spicy Apple Butter! I like to think of apple butter (which does not actually contain butter) as an apple jam. Much more intense than applesauce and smoother than chutney, my version of apple butter tastes of fall spices and concentrated essence of apple, brightened up with a bit of lemon and rounded out with brown sugar’s molasses notes. At the very end, a slight burn warms the back of your throat, courtesy of the cayenne pepper.
This week’s recipe, Upside-Down Strawberry Bars (aka Butter Mochi), was actually a mistake–a beautiful one, but a mistake nonetheless. You see, sometimes a dish doesn’t turn out the way I had hoped, and I despair. All that work, all those ingredients, now headed straight for the trash. But sometimes…if I remain open-minded and think creatively, that “mistake” of a dish might actually turn out to be better than what I had originally set out to create.
Initially, I made these bars as Butter Mochi–a fusion of Japanese and Hawaiian cultures–because I read the article in Lucky Peach and couldn’t stop thinking about its photo of crusty, dense, and buttery baked mochi. The photo and description made butter mochi seem decadent, worlds apart from the traditional fat-free, austere mochi. There’s something about traditional mochi that seems to take itself very seriously: rice as high art form. Butter mochi, on the other hand, is like the laid-back, fun-loving version of mochi. If traditional mochi were represented by a tailored suit and tie, butter mochi would be cutoffs and Mardi Gras beads.
[This post on Indian doughnuts in rose-scented syrup (gulab jamun) is the fifth and final post in a series about my Indian buffet adventures in Sunnyvale, California. In the first post, I reviewed Indian buffets and provided a recipe for garam masala. In the second post, I discussed the Indian buffet classic dish butter chicken (murgh makhani). In the third post, I made the other classic Indian buffet dish, spinach-cheese curry (palak paneer). And in the fourth post, I shared my recipe for garlicky Indian naan flatbread.]
Who finds sweets irresistible? Generally speaking, not me. I choose sourdough bread over birthday cake. Cheez-Its over chocolate chip cookies. My mother-in-law’s Sri Lankan rice & curry over homemade caramels. But take me to an Indian lunch buffet and park me in front of the dessert station, and I won’t complain. That’s because Indian buffets almost always serve gulab jamun, basically little fried balls of dough that are soaked in a saffron- and flower-scented sugar syrup until the doughnuts swell up to three times their size. Served in a bowl with a little extra warm syrup and maybe a few pistachios for crunch and color, gulab jamun is a comforting sugar bomb–and I absolutely love it.
[This is the fourth post in a series about my Indian buffet adventures in Sunnyvale, California. In the first post, I reviewed Indian buffets and provided a recipe for garam masala. In the second post, I discussed the Indian buffet classic dish butter chicken (murgh makhani). In the third post, I made the other classic Indian buffet dish, spinach-cheese curry (palak paneer).]
The year I lived in Sunnyvale, California, I lucked out in finding a small, close-knit community of an apartment complex. Sure, I did my fair share of grumpily lecturing the rambunctious kids, but my gregarious neighbors also made me feel a little less lonely in my time away from my family. And every day at dusk, the odors of sizzling cumin, ginger, hot chilies, and complex curries I had never smelled before would float out from the various units and drive me crazy with hunger. I imagined they’d be eating their way through piles of rice, curry, and garlic naan. I always fantasized about being invited to dinner, but alas, I never was.
[This is the third post in a series about my Indian buffet adventures in Sunnyvale, California. In the first post, I reviewed Indian buffets and provided a recipe for garam masala. In the second post, I provided a recipe for the Indian buffet classic dish butter chicken (murgh makhani).]
When I tried Indian food, and specifically Indian spinach-cheese curry (palak paneer) for the first time, I was a college student in the Bay Area and Naan & Curry had just opened up on Telegraph Avenue. Although I balked at spending more than $3 for a slice of pizza at Blondie’s or a sandwich at Cheese & Stuff, the heady smell of charred meats drew me in to Naan & Curry. This Pakistani-Indian hole-in-the-wall was about as bare-bones as you could get. Waiting inside the warm, sparsely-decorated dining room, my eyes would water from the intense heat and odor of the frying spices. Once my food was finally delivered, fiery hot, I would dip the freshly-baked naan into the spicy curries, tentatively at first, and then with more braveness, and I would down glasses of water and cups of warm, milky chai until I could quench the heat just enough to allow me to keep eating. After closing out my bill, I would step out into the sunshine, taking my first cooling breath in an hour, stomach uncomfortably full, mouth still on fire. That was the first time I tried palak paneer.
[This is the second post in a series about my Indian buffet adventures in Sunnyvale, California.]
My craving for Indian buffets is tied directly to how much I’m longing for one dish–butter chicken curry, or murgh makhani. It’s probably one of the most universally-loved Indian buffet dishes. During my Indian Buffet Adventures, I rarely found a restaurant that really messed up butter chicken…but it was also notable when I found a truly fantastic version. The sauce has to be just right: hot enough; layers of spice, rather than predominantly salt, cream and tomato; not too sweet. And the chicken has to be done well: charred, fresh-tasting, not repurposed from several-day-old leftover tandoori chicken.
I researched and tested several recipes to find the version that most reminded me of my favorite Indian buffets. In the end, I determined that there were several necessary elements:
Homemade Garam Masala
Sunnyvale, California is a small, sleepy city in the San Francisco Bay Area, right next door to San Jose, that is rife with expensive housing, young software programmers, and, best of all, a really great Indian food scene. So when my husband had to relocate for work to Sunnyvale for a year, I was not too displeased. I was sad to leave Los Angeles, but I was also excited about the prospect of exploring Indian cuisines in Sunnyvale. As it turns out, the variety, quality, and amount of good Indian food was indeed very impressive. For example, if I didn’t like the dosa place around the corner from my apartment complex, all I had to do was walk a block to the next dosa joint.
Because I often myself craving Indian food while my husband did not, I realized I had to secretly eat most of my Indian meals at lunchtime. This provided me with a perfect opportunity to sample the Indian buffet options in the area. It was time…for an Indian Buffet Adventure!