The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Thanks to ET for the photography.

Anymore, reading about the experiences of immigrants who come to this country seems to be the norm. It makes sense, after all. We are a country built almost entirely upon waves of immigrants from around the globe. My own family were immigrants from Spain and the Netherlands via Mexico over 500 years ago, and we are proud of both our heritage and our American history. It baffles me that, in this day and age, the amount of disdain and even hatred for people who come to this country to find a better life. Didn’t all of our ancestors do just that?

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Anyway, The Namesake describes the experience of Ashoke and Asima Ganguli and their “assimilation” into life as American citizens. Within their Indian culture, the concept of names is extremely important. The name is what gives the person his or her identity – symbolism and semiotics brought to life. Their firstborn, Gogol, is named for Russian philosopher who saved his father’s life, is the wreaker of havoc. His real name, Nikhil, is meant to represent the respectable, outward man and his pet name of Gogol within his family is his softer, shadow side. It is this duality of nature epitomized in his two names that affects the entire life of Gogol, and in a way, is the personification of the dual nature of immigrants, and of humanity itself.

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That desire to hold onto the culture, beliefs, food and history that created you and your country of origin doing battle with the desire to fit in, assimilate, become American so that you’re not teased, or even worse, tormented and tortured……..it’s the human struggle. We want to hold on to what makes us unique, different, ourselves in our deepest soul; yet we also want to be accepted and thought of as part of a large community and sadly, when we don’t conform and fit into what is expected, we can be treated horribly.

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Cardamom is, for me, the quintessential Indian spice, in addition to cilantro. It’s light and floral, but doesn’t add a strong note to food. It just gives a hint of perfume and spice on the tongue and in the nose. It’s a wonderful spice, coming in pods and you can either toss the pods into sauces or soups, or crush the pods with the flat of a knife blade and this releases their scent and flavor even more.

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There were actually two food references in this book that inspired today’s recipe: the first being when Gogol and Maxine are having dinner together on the first night that they will make love, and she is preparing coq au vin; and the second is the heartwrenching aftermath of his father’s death in which he and his mother prepare the funeral feast of fish, meats, potatoes spiced with coriander which were his father’s favorite, and other things.

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They prepare an elaborate meal, fish and meat bought one bitterly cold morning at Chinatown and Haymarket, cooked as his father liked them best, with extra potatoes and fresh coriander leaves. When they shut their eyes, it’s as if it is just another party, the house smelling of food.

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For me, chicken is one of those universal dishes that every country and nationality has a variation on, and being that I so closely associate cardamom with chicken, I found this recipe for buttermilk-cardamom marinated chicken at the Cooking on Weekends website, and my fellow food blogger The Dutch Baker posted a heavenly-sounding recipe for potatoes roasted with garlic and coriander. So these were the dishes I made today and the methods that worked for me, my own homage to Indian cuisine and in honor of this beautiful, heartbreaking and honest book.

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INGREDIENTS
For the chicken:
2 and 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
10 cardamom pods
7 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon maple syrup
10 chicken thighs, boneless and skinless
1 tablespoon sea salt
Fresh ground black pepper

For the potatoes:
1 lb baby potatoes
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
Large bunch of fresh cilantro
Sea salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1-2 lemons

METHOD:
Put the chicken thighs into a large plastic freezer bag, and add in the buttermilk, oil, cinnamon, crushed cardamom pods, garlic and maple syrup. Squish everything around to ensure the marinade covers every piece of chicken. Refrigerate overnight if possible, and if not, at least 7 hours.

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When ready to bake, take the meat out of the fridge at least 3 hours, so the meat is room temperature. Preheat the oven to 400F. Take the chicken out of the bag and place on a foil-lined baking tray. Don’t shake off the excess marinade. Bake for 40 minutes, until the chicken is a nice bronze-gold.

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Allow to cool and sprinkle with salt and pepper while you prepare the potatoes. Heat the olive oil in a cast-iron skillet, then slice the potatoes and add them to the pan.

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Sprinkle over the salt, pepper and fenugreek seeds. Cook on medium low, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes dry out and the skins are golden-brown. This will take approximately 30 minutes, so keep your glass of wine handy.

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After about 15 minutes, add the slivered garlic, the chopped cilantro, and the sliced red onion to the frying potatoes. The smell is out of this world! Cook another 20 minutes, stirring to keep the potatoes from burning on the bottom. Taste for seasoning, then squeeze over the juice of one lemon. Add more salt and pepper if necessary.

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Serve the chicken together with the potatoes. The flavors are incredibly intense and so delicious!

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The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Photography by me.

The reason I love Sarah Waters’ books is because there is always a sense of pervasive menace throughout her pages. Her settings are innocuous: British post-war, large rambling houses, upper-class families who have fallen on hard times and must economize in ways they never had to before, and a way of life that has always seemed incredibly romantic. These are environments that you’d expect to be comforting, old-fashioned and a little bit staid, but in The Little Stranger, the  house is haunted by dread, darkness and spirits……though not quite in the way you’d expect.

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I realize, of course, that none of these houses had central heating, that it rains incessantly on the British Isles, and that these once-wealthy families probably didn’t have enough money for firewood to heat the houses. Living there would have been a misery, I’m sure. But there is just something that draws me to this way of life that probably doesn’t exist any longer. I am an Anglophile, when I’m not dreaming of Italy…….so maybe you can call me, in the words of one of my cooking heroes Anna del Conte, a “Britalian.” I like that term.

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Told in the viewpoint of their family doctor, Dr. Faraday, whose mother was once a maid at the house in more affluent times, he has always been obsessed with the house and Ayres family who live there. As society has turned on its head after WWII, he soon becomes close friends with the family, something that would never have happened in earlier years. He grows fonder of Caroline, the Ayres daughter, and they begin a relationship.

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All seems well, and yet………..there’s that menacing sense, again. Very strange things begin to happen. Mrs. Ayres gets terrifyingly locked in the nursery where her first daughter died as a little girl. The family dog, a gentle and sweet canine, mysteriously attacks a neighboring child. Bell pulls ring in the middle of the night from rooms where no one has been for over 20 years. Handprints from a child appear on the walls in rooms where children haven’t set foot in decades. Again, that pervasive sense of something waiting, lurking, stalking.

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Sarah Waters can create atmosphere in a single sentence. But what I love about her books, aside from the setting and her atmospheric abilities, is simply the way she describes the rituals and niceties of British society. Tea is a constant and a comfort to the family, one of those rituals they hold onto to give structure to their lives even as the world around them seems to be crumbling daily.

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So I moved back, and she set the tray down among the books and papers on a cluttered table, then poured the tea and passed round the cups. The cups were of handsome old bone china, one or two of them with riveted handles; I saw her keep those back for the family………”Oh for a scone, and jam, and cream!” said Mrs. Ayres, as the plates were handed out. “Or even a really good biscuit.”

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I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I’m a sucker for scones. I had a mad crush on a man named Cord McQueen many years ago, who was a very accomplished cook and baker. He owned a coffee shop and I used to go in to get my vanilla coconut latte and a scone, and just drool over him. Aside from being handsome and charming and intelligent, the man could cook. Dream Man material for sure! Anyway, he made scones that were out of this world. Not overly sweet, perfect texture to hold together, and yet crumble off if you wanted to dip a chunk into your coffee, and he always used cranberries, my personal favorite. I’d forgotten that he had written down his scone recipe for me and discovered it recently, so using his method and having both dried cranberries and fresh blueberries on hand, I gave scones a whirl. This method makes 12 scones.

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup fresh blueberries
1/2 cup sugar
Zest of two clementines or one medium orange
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 sticks cold, unsalted butter, cubed
1 cup buttermilk

METHOD
Heat the oven to 400°F and prepare a baking tray by lining with parchment or lightly spraying with baking spray. In a mixing bowl, stir together the cranberries, blueberries, sugar and orange zest.

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In your most wonderful and awesome Kitchen Aid, add the flour, salt and baking powder, and mix well. Add in the cubed butter a few chunks at at time and mix with the pastry hook attachment until the texture is crumbly.

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Add the cranberry-blueberry mixture to the flour and butter mixture, and mix a couple of times.

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Add the buttermilk and mix together until the dough comes together. Wrap the dough in plastic and chill for 10-15 minutes.

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Roll out the dough on a floured surface, somewhat thickly, and cut out rounds using a floured biscuit cutter.

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Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until just golden.

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Ideally, I would have attempted clotted cream to go with, but decided that was making things very stressful for myself. Besides, there is nothing wrong with buying a jar of ready-made genuine Devon clotted cream from your friendly neighborhood Cost Plus World Market, which I did.

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Serve the scones in proper British style, with cream and black cherry preserves. Sooooooo yummy! Not too sweet, with the tart cranberries nicely offsetting the sweeter blueberries, and the orange zest adding a zip of citrus.

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And a very happy birthday to me, this 12th of March!

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