Book Review

The Indian Spice Kitchen

The Cooky Cat has already made it quite clear that the world does not need another cook book. The field is growing exponentially and is already littered with ever more narrow takes on all kinds of narrow things. There are probably books out there, one for omelets with white eggs, and another with brown. Or, chili con carne with beans, and without. Or, kimchee with and kimchee without salted shrimp.

It's a tower of babel out there folks, and we're just talkin' cook books. When cats dream of a scratching post, the tower of babel is an archetype that all felines can relate to. Sort of gives you an idea of what it's good for from a cat's eye view.

While the world doesn't need another cook book, you may. And one that Cooky Cat gives "full whiskers" to is this one, The Indian Spice Kitchen.

The Indian culinary pantry is indeed exotic. To even experienced cooks it may be unknown territory and too daunting to feel comfortable to approach. If you want to have the experience of the uninitiated, just go to an Indian food store and mosey about looking at it all. Just what the heck is all that stuff for? Some of it will be familiar. Hey, jeera, it's cumin! But what about the spice mixture panch phoron?

You need a resource to demystify the Indian pantry. We have one for you.

The Indian Spice Kitchen lays it out in the most accessible and beautiful way. The contents are organized first according to classes of ingredients, then the specific ingredients themselves for each category. There are suggested recipes under each topic. There is a good bit of history and references to medicinal properties. How things are cultivated and stored. The uses, in general and great recipes.

This is a culinary student's book. Wondering what to do with that package of tirphal berries you bought on impulse; the book gives chapter and verse. Then you can conjure up "visions of Goan beaches at dusk, when the notes of the guitar fill the air and curry and rice stalls start their trade." 

Another book that is biblical in its importance to high Indian cuisine...

Lord Krishna's Cuisine




Mujadara is a delicious Middle Eastern staple dish made with rice and lentils and onions. Because of the rice and legume combination it is high in protein, not to mention the iron in the lentils. It’s the kind of dish that “puts hair on your chest”. That is, if you are male; females get bigger breasts. Don’t take our word for it, try it for yourself.

To make a proper mujadara you need a proper pot, a “tunjara” in Arabic. The word is onomatopoeic for the sound of a rolling cooking pot. There is an Arabic folktale that tells the story of a bereft woman, who prays to God for a child, any child, even if it be a pot. Be careful what you pray for… she gets a pot. This little rambunctious daughter pot, however, has no moral compass and gets inappropriately involved with the neighbors. She gets her appropriate comeuppance. There is a book that tells the tale. CLICK here to a link to the book with commentaries.

Rice and lentils are one of those combinations that on the fork seem to be in the divine order of things. Like apple pie and vanilla ice cream (or a nice slice of sharp cheddar—“apple pie without a slice of cheese is like a kiss, without a squeeze”). Or, grated beets and horseradish (with ham or hard boiled eggs). Asparagus and hollandaise. Gin and tonic (generous lime wedge, of course). Buffalo/bison grass and vodka (FYI: The Zubrowka brand bison grass vodka can only be produced in Poland at the Bialystok distillery. On our way back from Europe recently we brought back a bottle of Grasovka bison grass vodka. Our bottle is distinctive in that it has a furry “bison hair” wrapper. How cool it that! You've heard the expression, "The Hair of the Dog"? This dog got some hair!)

Other perfect combinations that come to mind: PBJ, tomatoes and basil, strawberries and whipped cream, bagels and lox, beer and tomato juice, bacon and just about anything, pepperoni and pizza, potato chips and onion dip, Slim Jims and beer, cretons and cornichons, lobster and butter, fresh pears with Roquefort and brie (but, make that a good brie), cucumbers and sour cream. You will doubtless have your own personal preferences; we merely list the absolutely 100% everybody-agrees pairings. Yet, the list is not exhaustive; and, if you would, please leave a recommendation in the comments section.

As for mujudara, here is what to do:

You’ll need equal parts brown lentils, long grain rice (basmati is good), and finely diced onion.

Sauté the diced onion in a bit of olive oil (too much or they just boil) until just beginning to caramelize. Stir in lentils, sauté together briefly. Add 2 parts water to lentils, cover and cook for 30 minutes. Next add the rice. The rice gets additional water; how much? Enough to total 2 parts liquid to rice; but factor in that 2 parts including the liquid already in the pot. Salt to taste. Bring back to boil, reduce to very low heat and cook covered for 17 minutes, or until rice is cooked.

Spices: Notice there is no spicing indicated. You can add ground pepper and ground cumin. As you like. Later on you might try a teensie pinch of allspice and/or clove. Just to remember, the dish stands well on its own with only some salt.

Whilst things are cooking in the tunjara, sauté lots of thinly sliced onion until well caramelized. Also, treat the cook. Have a shot of Zubrovka, or two. A dill pickle is a perfect accompaniment. Plus a beer chaser, even better.

Take off heat and let stand for a few minutes. Fluff and serve. Texture should be close to that of well cooked rice, perhaps a little more moist.

Garnish with browned onions. A nice salad to accompany and you’re good to go.

As far as a tunjara is concerned, we are partial to enameled cast iron. Something like this...


Pasteles Puertorriqueños

Agradecimiento La Familia Rivera y Afanador

Once we were just north of Cheyenne Wyoming and in the middle of nowhere was this fireworks stand. Big flat front from the road with lights and bright colors, traditional buckeye yellow and big red lettering. Go through the door and you are really in a trailer.

We weren't really in the market for fireworks, though the boy in us is always in the market. The image of that big black cat on the front of the shop was a draw. Catnip to Cooky Cat. Since it was October naturally we wondered how come the shop was open “out of season”. We were brought up real quick to find out that “Fireworks aren’t just for the 4th of July. They’re for anytime you want to celebrate life.” The natural comeback was to crack wise about how self-serving that remark was; but the gun in the holster on the fellow’s hip said, “let’s be friends”. 

It’s the same with Pasteles Puertorriqueños. As you will see across the four instructional videos, it is traditional to make enough for the entire neighborhood during a certain annual holiday. The Mexicans make their Tamales en masse at that time also. (Let’s hold off the discovery of what is the holiday; you will just have to watch the wonderful, love filled videos which lay out the recipe in detail. It’s worth the postponed discovery.)

Pasteles and Mexican Tamales are related, in spirit. The Mexican recipe calls for a Masa Harina, (ground corn hominy); the Puerto Rican version is made with a Masa of assorted starchy ingredients.

We say: Pasteles Puertorriqueños are for anytime you want to celebrate good eats. Also, as you will see in the instructionals, anytime you have a lot of time and patience. You can enlist grand dad, however, and cut your work load in half. You can enlist the whole fam damily, in fact, and make it into a celebration of life. Shoot off some fireworks if you dare.

The only thing we would add to the recipe shown in the videos is to wrap the Pasteles in paper and a square section of plantain/banana leaf (the paper goes outermost). Also, for the fat(s) used in the recipe you may want to consider some portion as lard. Not the bland store bought brick, but home made from pork scraps or from a good butcher shop that makes its own. That would typically be like a Polish store that makes a lot of sausage and other cold cuts.

Also, at some point if you are actually going to take the Pastele plunge you have to decide how you’re going to transform the veggies into a Masa. The clear message from the traditional makers of this little dainty is to go it by hand with a box grater. There is a certain texture you are going for and the hand box grater is still peerless. If you think that is a bit of work, take a look at Don Rivera in the video. He is a model of patience. And a model—as is the entire Familia Rivera—of how family bonds are renewed and enriched with everybody giving a hand in the preparation of meals at home.

We are inclined to look into a grinding blade for the trusty food processor. But, we advise, do the box grater thing first. Pasteles are delicious, if a bit labor intensive. Unless it’s in your blood, you probably won’t be making them often anyway. (But, if you do, then you can look further and get a special Pastele Masa machine that will wholesale mass quantities at the touch of a button.)

Lastly, we want to mention an ingredient that in indispensable for Pasteles. Annatto, also called Achiote in Spanish. It is used to impart color and flavor. It has many other uses and every proper kitchen should have it on hand. Think, Spanish Rice. Or, when you don’t want to spring for the saffron.

If you don’t think you are familiar with it, think again. Maybe not by name, but Annatto is what is used to make your Cheddar cheese so cheesily yellow. If you used margarine in times past, you will remember that the stuff itself was a bland white. It came packed with a dollop of annatto coloring to mix in to give it the pale yellow look of butter. Anyone remember?

If you are not yet convinced that Achiote is something that you should run right out and purchase, here is what the lovely and great Daisy Martinez says about achiote oil: “SUNSET IN A BOWL.”

Also, pay attention there is a cleavage shot coming along, so watch for it. It spices things up a bit. It's not that naughty. After all, mama kept it in the video.

Nota Bene: There is a secret ingredient in the recipe. See if you can find it. HINT: It's more spiritual in its nature. Share it in the comments block below.

Familia Rivera y Afanador? Por Favor...

The Singular Single Malt

We are Friends of Laphroaig. Even have some property near the distillery. You can click the link to have a virtual visit to Islay, the "Queen of the Hebrides"(or, as they themselves say, "Banrìgh nan Eilean"): 55°37′55″N 06°08′58″W / 55.63194°N 6.14944°W / 55.63194; - 6.14944

As a friend of Laphroaig Cooky Cat gets VIP star treatment when he visits. There's a little spot for a nice cozy nap reserved just for him near the warm peat fires in the distillery.

We unequivically recommend Laphroaig to all our friends. The Triple Wood is claimed to be it's most complex expression. Click this link to sample Laphroaig Triple Wood. (Say it,"trapple", when you visit the distillery and they will let you address a nice piece of the Haggis as a bonus.)

Mind you the basic 10 Year Old is our tot of choice (as in the sailors' daily "tot of rum", to keep the scurvy away). Two fingers, please. Three would be better. When we're feelin' a little flush, we send the sommelier to the cellar for the 40 Year Old. Either is a nonpareil pleasure; each in its own own way, of course.

Click this to see a delightful interactive video on what the First Taste of Laphroaig might look like.

Now we are going to sit down and have ourselves a wee dram whilst we enjoy the lovely song below. Please join us.



Who doesn’t like a trifle bit of dessert? How about an English Trifle? It’s the undisputed Queen of desserts. Accept no substitutes. But, if you’re going to make a trifle there are some things we have to discuss.

The story goes that the Queen wanted a Trifle for her dinner guests on one occasion. The pastry chef was a notoriously literal fellow; he asked, "Your majesty, how much should we make?" The Queen replied tersely, "A bucketful."

In the springtime in early May we have a riot of Violets in our gardens. We have a major planting at every one of the estates and even have them in window boxes in the city pied-à-terre in NYC, London, Paris (but, of course), and Cuernavaca. The ones at the place on Lake Como are the very best of all; perhaps those blossoming at the compound on Mount Desert Island in Maine are a close second. We have an ongoing, but friendly, competition with Martha (Stewart), who owns a small place down the road from us on the island. We like to stick it to her with our prize Violets. All our staffs know how much we like them and they make sure that there are as many bouquets as can be gathered in the rooms always waiting for us upon arrival. They do so much want to please. We are truly blessed with such good help. God bless the little people.

Even so, there are always a lot of the lovely Violet flowers left over, and so we have candied Violets made religiously every spring. If you are in the neighborhood do stop by and lend a hand. If Trifle is the Queen of desserts, candied Violets surely must be the Queen of garnishes. We’re old fashioned so it’s just egg whites and sugar. Vegetarians can use edible gum Arabic as the binder instead of Egg whites. (Check for yourself on the issue of safety using raw Egg whites; we understand that it is raw yolks that can give the problems.)

Speaking of Queens. We once had neighbors who where British. Pamela and Percy. He sold Egg Harbor Yachts and she lived the life of a princess/queen at home. Pamela was a lady but she also let you know that she still had it going on. You could catch a teasing glimpse of her in the large front window in her filmy light Violet colored peignoir set as she moved about the house. It was a billowy floor length gown and matching barely-there coat, all gauze and satin and ribbons and bows. There she was, in full makeup, with her Elizabeth Taylor black tresses coiffed just so. Jewelry? Lots! Perfume. Triple carnation from London's venerable Les Senteurs. (Let's just say that there are always more than a few bees buzzing around Pamela's door.) It's probably an English thing. You know how the ladies there dress. Just think of those things they call "Fascinators" (dressy hats) and you'll get a sense of the aesthetic. In that getup she was as close to the textbook definition of “naughty but nice” as there is. Clearly a mixed message, for sure.

Mind you, you couldn’t really ever see anything with all those layers, except maybe a hint of form as she bustled about. But they were bed clothes, and you know what can happen in a bed. If you are having trouble conjuring up the image of Pamela in her frillies and ribbons and bows, Nigella Lawson is a pretty good look alike. Woof! Or, as Cooky Cat would say, “Me-OW!”

Pamela wasn't someone to trifle with, though. She was a Lady. Veddy proper, to be sure. At daily Tea — the cucumber sandwiches, never with the crust (heaven forbid). One Christmas season Pamela and Percy brought us along to a soiree with their crowd. We didn’t socialize with them except for that once, and maybe the time we went out for a cruise on Percy’s boat with too many cocktails en route. Someone up there was looking out. The folks at the party were a strange bunch, very louche and best described as poseurs for idle rich. With maybe a sprinkling of Euro trash. Can anyone tell us what the hell is a Vodka and Water? The de rigueur drink that evening. Our best take is that it is the sort of tipple that you have after too many years of too much of everything else.

Perhaps the most memorable person at the party was Princess FU FU. It wasn’t immediately clear what that Asian woman of a certain age was the princess of. But after a while even the vodka and waters took effect, and there was the Princess showing off her spécialité. Decorum does not permit the full graphic description; leave it to say that the Lady had a certain nether anatomical prowess for ejecting ping pong balls fast and far into the crowd. The sound as each ball was launched into the air was what you would hear when you repeat “FU!” FU!” FU!” with a forceful exhalation with each syllable. (Watch out, duck! “FU!” FU!” FU!”) Someone could get their eye poked out! But it was all an eyeful to be sure. Naughty, but nice. [Try it yourself, you'll get the picture. Not with a ping pong ball(s), silly; just to say it. Though, not that there's anything wrong with it if you did go for the whole nine yards.]

What’s all that have to do with English Trifle?

Well, Pamela was a subject of the Queen, remember? Turned out that our sexy Pamela could russle up a superb English Trifle. That night for the party she brought one and it was the centerpiece of the banquet table at that louche luau that night. It was my first and best ever still. Just what other sensual treats Pamela offered were, alas, not ever to be revealed.

The Princess was renowned for her sinful little trick and the English Trifle itself is sinfully delicious. It’s a trick to make also. An erotic mélange à trois+++... all fresh and creamy and custardy, with hands full of sensually soft cake and berries and fruits, and liberally lubricated with sherry and cordials. Are you feeling it? Yes? Ah... yes! Me-OW!

Lastly, the candied Violets. Everyone around in our crowd knows that an English Trifle without a generous sprinkling of crystallized Violets on top isn’t even edible as far as we’re concerned. No discussion on that, please. Do not trifle with us on that point.

So now it is all starting to come together, huh? Just a few more things. As good as English Trifle is to eat, without the proper presentation it is not worth looking at. We’ll even consider going without the garnish of Violets over not having it offered in proper fashion.

Here's the secret to English Trifle. It's indispensable, the sine qua non. You will be absolutely needing a proper English glass trifle bowl. Hurry, Waterford has a lovely example on sale for just $950, marked off from $1,200. You say that is a trifle steep? The other one they have is $2,250 on sale from $4,500. Don’t let the term “trifle” fool you. We did point out that it is the Queen of desserts, didn’t we?

And one last thing. The custard. There’s only one choice for a veddy, veddy British English Trifle (accept no substitutes):



Bubbles in My Soup?

We hear that a friend's grandpa used to say "What do you want, bubbles in your soup?" No one knows what it meant, for certain. But it seemed like what you say when you think someone wants even more than what is already prrretty, prrretty good.

Maybe the phrase carries its weight for the fact that you can't get bubbles into soup. Alright, when it's on the boil, of course there are bubbles. But, on the table, no bubbles have ever been seen in soup, ever, even into the foamy mists of prerecorded history.

So we pondered what exactly would bubbles in soup actually be.

First let’s look at soup. It is a wonderful thing, no doubt about it. But its excellence is in the tasting, not so much a looker. It just lays there. All horizontal and flat. That’s probably why chefs came up with garnitures. And, oh yes, croutons. Where would we be without croutons? There are two kinds of people, those that like croutons and those that tolerate them. We are on the latter side. Hold the croutons! Please! About that Cooky Cat is quite finicky.

Soup just lays there, like the proverbial lox. (But, speaking of laying there "like a lox", rest assured we won’t be naming names.) Even the Campbell Soup Company tried to solve the problem, but got slapped by the FCC. The story goes that for an advertisement they put marbles in the bottom of the soup bowl to bring the solid bits up and into view. The government, ever vigilant to protect the welfare of the citizenry, took issue. Seems that some bureaucrat thought that it gave the wrong impression; that there was more there than was, in fact, there. Who could argue that? We’re pretty sure that the soup folks just wanted to show their stuff, not promise more than what was actually in the can. And we think most buyers knew that as well. But things like soup advertising have to stand up to scrutiny on all fronts. Thank you Uncle Sam. Now that everything else should get the same vigilant attention. We’ll stop there lest this becomes a political rant and we start to foam at the mouth. This is not about that kind of foam.

Our loyal readers will clearly know by now that stunt food is not one of Cooky Cat’s things. We don’t want everything piled on top of itself in some triumphal towering travesty of tempting tastiness. Just put the meat here, the potatoes there, and the vegetables there and there. Salad, a separate plate, please. Not that the idea of height is a bad thing. Pancakes do look better stacked, everybody knows that. Soup could stand a little lift too.

That brings us to the bubbles. Bubbles? Bubbles? Ah, yes! Foam! Foam is just… bubbles. Yes? (By the way, we left this writing for a moment and the screensaver “bubbles” was running when we came back with our second cup of coffee. Interesting synchronicity, n'estce pas?)

Who doesn’t like bubbles? Really! Lawrence Welk sure does. When we pour our coffee we pour from on high so that there’s a nice supply of bubbles in the cup. And all those other coffees; the crema on your espresso, the cap on your puccino.  

So let’s add some bubbles to our soup. Grandpa is spinning in his grave, to be sure. You already know about that dollop of sour cream trick. So how about a scoop of some suds to float on top of that soup? Brilliant!

We are not going to give you your marching orders for how to make edible culinary foams. And, we do not recommend that you go out and spend just under $200 to set yourself up with a whipper. But, if you’re the sort that has a gadget for every step of the way in the kitchen, go for it. The results will be spectacular; but we admonish to not buy stuff that’s only going to get a few uses and then collect dust. Also, if you want a gadget, try an immersion blender first. It does the trick and you can use it for other stuff too. A sturdy bowl and a good flexible whisk will do for our purist friends. Besides the issue of having little-used kitchen gadgets to store, there’s the cleanup factor if you use a lot of things in your recipes. Good help is hard to find.

The one thing that seems to be a given in the food suds world is the need to add something to stabilize the foam. Agar and lecithin for you vegetarians, and gelatin and raw egg white for you other less elevated types. (You no doubt have some issues about raw egg. Read up and decide for yourself. Raw egg whites are not so much the problem as are raw yolks.)

If you are really frugal about springing for yet another kitchen appliance, do what our dear ones do. Put your kid in a big tub of whatever you want for foam, and let the little bugger have at it. Below we see the (usually) lovely Iris making some lavender spring herb and watercress foam for a big party.

Party on, Iris!