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Rose and cardamom scented Truffle Brownies

Our garden is currently a study in schizophrenic behaviour. While it should be responding to autumn and preparing for a nice long sleep, it is frantic with activity.  The strawberry plant is turning out fruit like a plant possessed. The hibiscus has decided that now is the time to burst into riotous scarlet explosion. (I’m deeply thankful for this since no other flower reminds me of home more. We used to have several of these plants in constant bloom all around my building.) The Indian summer of this region has everything to do with this madness. The biggest surprise are the Gerbera daisies, which we thought had breathed their last gasp end of July. The plant had all but disappeared, but it then surprised us by bursting out in a brave show of health. It has begun throwing out several blooms a week.

The air is charged with a cold streak,  the kind that makes you reach for a jacket even though you look outside your window and see brilliant sunshine. Perhaps, it is because that sunshine is slow to show up and low in its bearings, its fiery gold reminiscent of early sunsets and late sun rises. Nevertheless it makes you want for the substantial things. The fresh fruits that were more than enough as dessert in their raw, unadorned form only recently simply won’t do now. I find myself reaching for the ghee or some spices to cook them into warm things. Those are the nature of dishes we’re starting to crave; the oozing unctousness of a spiced pie, the savoury headiness of a steaming bean stew, the joyous rich comfort of a perfect chocolate brownie.

I have a pan in my kitchen that I use specifically for brownies. It is a basic thing, made of cooking grade aluminium. We bought it on an impulse at a sale because of the fact that it came with a lid, making it a perfect cook-and-store utensil. This pan has proven its worth to me more than anything else in the kitchen. It has lost its sheen and has taken on scratches of careless cutting over the years, but it still bakes fantastic bread puddings and cakes. It excels at its primary purpose, rich brownies with a crisp-ish edge.
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Our garden & chilli vinegar

I can remember the first thing I ever planted. I must have been nine. I planted a few mustard seeds in a handful of soil in a small used amrakhand carton. The seeds were from my mum’s spice box and the minimal labour involved was a school project. There are vague memories about it involving monocotyledons and dicotyledons. Much clearer is the remembrance of my being dubious of my mother’s and the science text book’s strong assertion that those tiny black spheres would amount to anything, let alone new plants; but I put the seeds in and smoothed the soil over, just as the textbook said I should. I poked at the mud with a toothpick for the first two days for signs of life. It was impossible to tell; the mustard blended in just perfectly with the soil. It may have been the first time any lesson in patience and faith was brought home to me with any sort of permanence or gravity.

Sure enough, just as they said, little mustard plants grew out of their containers, mud clinging to the dual leaf structure I was supposed to be observing. I was enthralled. There they were, tiny comma shaped flecks of green all woven through the brown soil, little bits of earth clinging to the frail green leaves as they pulled themselves up to face the sun. First there were two leaves, soon there were many more. I scribbled notes and drew hasty diagrams. I remember taking that little pot to school, the little seedlings standing up like so many valiant soldiers in a row. After that, I moved the seedlings to a bigger pot with my mom’s help. Unfortunately they didn’t survive the harsh May sun that year, but the fascination stuck. We hadn’t much room to grow things where I was growing up but my mom did her best with what room she had. I vowed to do the same one day.

Our first grown up apartment was a lunch box, but we still had a few tiny pots on a sliver of window sill. Amey shares my enthusiasm for growing things and has a true green thumb. We grew a few herbs and the chilli namesake of the blog. Our enthusiasm got the better of us with that chilli plant. We found peppers can’t be grown indoors in chilly San Francisco, but how we loved watching that plant grow from seeds and bear many flowers and some hot, meagre fruit. If you like to cook, there is no greater pleasure than snipping a few leaves of fresh rosemary or thyme from your own pot. All one needs to grow something is the desire to do so and the willingness to get their hands dirty from time to time. Or wear gloves if you don’t. I did. Plants require very little from us by way of help. Sunshine, a little water, an occasional smattering of fertilizer and they go out of their way to reward you with cheerful green. Herbs especially are so gosh darn easy to grow. Absolutely anyone with a tiny pot and a sunny ledge can do so.

  The green car at Flora Grubb

One of the features that sold us on our current apartment was ample back yardage. That first year, we started small, a few herbs, more chillies. As those plants thrived, we got bolder, planting flowers and vegetables. At this time, after having harvested onions, kale and peppers, I think we can safely call ourselves successful urban gardeners. It is no unattainable title given how easy it is to be one.

It is spring and the garden is all flowers and leaves. I am truly stoked about our motley pot collective this year. We have a grand fifty or so of them, with a variety of plants. Some, like the rosemary and thyme, have been with us since our old tiny North beach apartment but most others are new. We are growing at this point, what seems like every conceivable kind of herb. There are a few vegetables and some gorgeous flowers. I’m thrilled to share our growing garden with you.

The English pea plant. Its snaking tendrils, variegated leaves and bilaterally symmetrical white blooms remind me of the Alien movies for some odd reason. The plant is bursting with flowers right now and visions of pea pulao and pesto are already dancing in my head.
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Kashmiri Paneer with Spinach

Even though the rains are slow in leaving us this year, it is well and truly spring. In fact, it seemed like spring was here in early February. The weather was nippy and grey, but it didn’t matter really. Not when there were cherry blossoms softly blooming all over the city.

It is ethereal how these trees blossom in what seems like the depths of winter, a sure signal of the coming spring if there ever was one. Dull, dead branches magically unfurl gentle pink buds. Chancing upon one for the first time will take your breath away and leave you marvelling at this majesty of nature.

The first time I saw this tree I was lucky enough to see an avenue of them, covered in blushing pink blossoms, no leaves in sight. Ahead and beyond, there were hibernating trees, brown and withered with nary a leaf. They stood there, graceful, delicate pink blooms fluttering down with every cold gust of wind, a resplendent symbol of awakening life. I will never forget that scene. Every year since then, I look forward to the cherry blossoms blooming all over the city. A harbinger of seasonal flux as sure as the changing colour of leaves in the fall.

The plum blossoms soon follow. They aren’t as readily found but as just as pretty. We found a whole row of them up in Napa last month. Just as elegant a sight to behold.

The cherry blossom blooms last but a couple of weeks before the dark, velvety red leaves sprout and take over for the rest of the year. They signify change and are celebrated. Those few weeks are enough though, to lift a gloomy city’s grey mood. These annual events provide much needed nourishment to the spirit. Best of all, they are simple and accessible to anybody.

Good food done right can be as much of a nourishment to the soul as to the body. Most often, it will be the simple dishes that provide the most comfort. Shallow on your effort and your time, with a satisfaction quotient inversely proportional to either. Some of my favourite foods are the ones that work this way. A steaming bowl of hot dal, this potato vegetable rolled up in a chapati, or this one over some couscous. This fried rice topped with a gently fried egg. Or this soul-satisfying paneer dish.

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A thousand words…

…couldn’t begin to cover everything that’s gone on in my time away from this space. This place, where I’ve captured little snippets of our life and most of my culinary galvanization. I don’t use that word loosely. To get me into the kitchen these days takes inciting events. Events that cause transformation from culinary inertia to motion. Like reading Tender, Nigel Slater’s compelling treatise on the growing of fruits and vegetables and the value of good produce. (I started cooking a gratin of chard and shallots at four in the morning after reading Volume 1 through the night). Or the geeky joy of putting to use my steel grey 5 quart KitchenAid Architect. I’ve been drooling over it forever but have been loathe to give up precious counter space to it. But a slight tragedy with a lovely gift from our friends Sanjeev and Vandana made me take the inevitable plunge. (The tragedy involved a red soda maker and some leaky orange flavouring. The carnage was terrible, but the outcome, super sweet.)

Of course we haven’t been living on fast food and fresh air for half a year. (Don’t panic, Mom). There has been just enough cooking in our kitchen, sufficient to anchor soul to body. The kind of cooking that provides nourishment at a hectic time, so you can move to the next day and do what you did today all over again without losing your mind. Our stove has seen a ton of our mothers’ recipes, because we miss our moms and this is the closest we can get to their incredible cooking and tender caring. There have been soups and curries and more cookies than I care to admit. I just haven’t been able to tell you much about them because my brain has stolidly refused to produce cogent thoughts on the matter. And Amey has been too exhausted to pick up his camera.

2010 and 2011 have been very busy with work, for which we are grateful, but also a bit exhausted. We hope 2012 will allow us more of a balance and we realize that really is up to us. So with that end in mind, we’ve consciously begun spending some time each weekend in clearing the mind and unplugging from the errata of daily affairs.

San Francisco is the best city in the world for getting away without actually leaving.

It has all the accoutrements of a big city…

But it has the soul of an island getaway

There are little surprises to be in found in every neighbourhood
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