True Confessions

Praveen at peace. He doesn't know about the palak paneer.

Person: Praveen
Location: Guwahati, India
Recipe: Vegetable Makhani

I cheated on my Indian couchsurfer. I know. I’m an awful human being.

And this after he brought me diamonds. And pearls. And brass earrings. And an odd but cool-looking key ring that sounds like bells when you shake it.

Diamonds and pearls and silver and brass are a girl's best friend(s).

And tea, god bless him, from his family’s tea plantation in Guwahati in the northeastern state of Assam.

Oh and then, he saved my life. That’s right. He saved my life, metaphorically speaking, anyway.

And still, I cheated on him! I’m clearly an awful human being.

Do you want to know how he saved my life?

Well, for an entire year, I’d been sitting on a free $800 American Airlines ticket to ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD that I snagged after agreeing to be bumped from a flight to France last year.

For a whole year I’d been sitting on that ticket, waiting, just waiting, for the right moment to cash it in so I could fly to ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD.

But then life took over, and I forgot about the ticket. I knew it had to be booked in September, but my day job didn’t allow for more vacation, so I’d purposely delayed booking a flight for as long as possible in order to push it into the following year.

Okay, so now it’s September second, a Friday night, and Praveen is at my house. He’s being incredibly nice.  We’re eating leftovers from an amazing Indian dinner he cooked for me the night before. When all of a sudden, it occurs to me that it’s September, which means, that’s right, that ticket, I need to book it soon because I have ONE YEAR to use it.

Do you see where this is going?

So I open the drawer in which I keep the envelope containing the ticket, pry it open, and discover that it needs to be booked THAT NIGHT!

ओह, नहीं!!  (“Oh, no!” in Hindi)

I start freaking out. I call American Airlines. What can I do? Where can I go? HELP!!!

After some back and forth, the ticket agent and I agree that my best bet is to fly to London on April 1, 2012. Done. Booked.

But wait. No. Not done. Not booked. Because booking over the phone isn’t enough. No. In order to use the free $800 ticket to ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD, I have to BRING IT to the American Airlines counter at J.F.K. Airport and HAND IT to a ticket agent. And did I mention, the counter closes at 10:30 p.m. (it’s now 9:15 p.m.), I’m at least an hour from J.F.K. by subway, my car is in the repair shop, and it’s a holiday weekend, which means everyone and their mother will be on the highway, headed out-of-town.

मदद करो!!!!!! (“Help!” in Hindi)

Which is when Praveen, cool as a cucumber, says, “Don’t worry. I can drive you to J.F.K. I have a Zip car. And it has GPS.”* *(Insert my bad rendition of an Indian accent here.)

I stare at him, eyes melting. “Really? You would do that for me?”

“Of course,” he says, “It’s no trouble. I have GPS.”

At which point I feel EVEN GUILTIER that I CHEATED on Praveen earlier that night by offering him palak paneer that I’d bought that afternoon at a PAKISTANI restaurant! Which just goes to show what a horrible human being I am, and why it’s critical that Praveen NEVER, EVER find out what I did.

Cheating on Praveen at the Pakistani Tea House.

So we get in the car and start driving through the streets of Brooklyn and onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to get to J.F.K. Airport. But suddenly the GPS starts directing Praveen towards Prospect Expressway, which I would NEVER, EVER take to get to J.F.K.

“Praveen, why is the GPS directing us through East New York, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Brooklyn, in a completely different direction than I’ve EVER taken in my ENTIRE LIFE to get to J.F.K.?”

“Oh, that’s probably because I programmed it to avoid tolls,” he graciously explains, at which point I internally freak out even more, because now I’m sure we will NEVER, EVER get to J.F.K. on time because the local roods will take FOREVER!!!!!!!

But drive we do, through neighborhoods I completely don’t recognize, until we reach J.F.K., at which point we start madly following signs to the departure gate for American Airlines (the last one, of course), and then I’m dashing, but dashing, to the ticket counter and breathlessly explaining to the woman behind the desk my situation, which causes her to stare at me like I’m a crazy person, until I stop blathering, at which point she says to me, “Well you’re one lucky lady, because if you’d gotten here 10 minutes later, we’d be gone.”

And with that, she processes my reservation and hands me a ticket: London, April 1, 2012. Just like that, Praveen has saved my life. Or at least my $800 ticket.

I rush back to the car. I hug Praveen. We both start laughing, amazed at our (my) good fortune. And then we drive back to my apartment, hardly believing we’ve just been through this whirlwind, three-hour escapade.

And as we lay down in our respective beds, I think to myself, “God, how I love couchsurfing, and how grateful I am to have Praveen briefly in my life. But, more importantly, he must NEVER, EVER find out about that palak paneer!

Don't tell him I cheated!

————————————–

Here’s the dish Praveen made for me during his visit. It was delicious, but because I can’t find vegetable makhanwala mix like the one he BROUGHT OVER from India, I’m providing a substitute that should get you in the ballpark.  

And to show you what an even more awful person I am, this photo is NOT the dish Praveen made for me, because that was so good we ate all of it.  No, this is a similar-looking mixed vegetable plate from the Indian restaurant Taste of Tandoor, located at 149 Church Street in lower Manhattan.  If you want to cheat on your Indian couchsurfer while in New York City, you can also visit Pakistani Tea House, just down the street, at 176 Church Street.

Mixed vegetable plate from Taste of Tandoor.

Recipe: Vegetarian Makhani  (Buttery Vegetable Curry)
Serves: 4
Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Vegetables:
2 1/2 ounces (75 grams) vegetable makhanwala mix if you can find it. If not, try this: Parampara’s Vegetable Jaipuri Mix
15 ounces (425 grams) frozen, defrosted or canned mixed peas and carrots
4 ounces (115 millilitres) milk
1/2 cup (75 grams) red onion, diced
1/4 cup (40 grams) fresh red pepper, diced
2 Tablespoons (30 millilitres) vegetable oil
1 teaspoon (3 grams – 1.5 UK teaspoon)  mustard seeds

Rice:
3 to 4 cups (560 grams) pre-cooked white rice
1/2 cup (75 grams) red onion, diced
2-3 Tablespoons (30-140 millilitres) vegetable oil
3/4 (1.8 grams – 1 teaspoon UK) teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon (1.5 grams – .75 UK teaspoon) mustard seeds

Optional for rice:
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon red chili powder
1/4 teaspoon fenugreek leaves
1/8 teaspoon asafaotida

Spicy World seems to be a good source for Indian spices if you don’t have an Indian grocery in your town, and you can buy from them directly on Amazon.com.

To prepare vegetables:
1. Place oil in frying pan over medium heat.
2. Add mustard seeds, onion, and red pepper.
3. Add 1 cup (250 millilitres) water and the vegetable makhanwala or jaipuri mix.  Stir to combine.  Continue to cook about 5 minutes.
4. Add peas and carrots.  Add milk.  Stir to combine.
5. Lower heat and allow mixture to simmer, covered, until ready to serve.

To prepare rice:
1. In a frying pan, place oil over medium heat.
2. Add cumin, mustard, and red onion.  Add optional spices.  Stir to combine.
5. Add cooked white rice and stir to combine.  Cook over low heat until warmed.

Serve vegetable makhani on top of spiced rice with naan bread as accompaniment.

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Have Mercy on Us for We Know Not What We Have Cooked

Person: Monica
Location: Barcelona, Spain
Recipe: Gazpacho

Monica smiling before the storm.

We were battening down the hatches in the apartment, Monica and I. Hurricane Irene was drawing near, and New York City had begun shutting its collective doors to all but the most intrepid. Subway service was on its way to being suspended citywide. And as early as 5 p.m., bodegas were slamming their gates in preparation for the impending storm; shelves had already been emptied of water, bread, and milk. Soon, as Monica and I knew but never voiced, we would be one another’s sole ballast.

Watch out hurricane! You haven't reached Brooklyn yet.

Faced with impending doom, it’s natural to supplicate oneself to God in hopes of finding tea and sympathy. Luckily for me, Monica sang in a gospel choir in Barcelona, so we were that much closer to heaven. Steering clear of actual prayers though, as she claimed her interest in gospel was musical rather than religious, we instead eased our minds by filling the larder with God’s essentials: bread and water. I ran the tap and collected clear H2O in pots, then made a quick run to a grocery store to see what could still be had for love or money: jars of artichokes and capers, tins of tuna, perhaps a lemon. Two bottles of wine and some nectarines and apples I’d bought days earlier at the farmer’s market would keep us sane with sangria.

Calm before the storm.

That night, we huddled at the table while outside the wind whipped at trees and buildings. Rain pounded the glass, as we ate in silence under dim lights to conserve energy, hoping we’d be spared the rude awakening of even more thunder and lightning deep in the night.

It's going to be a rough night.

Dinner was modest – bread and cheese and olives at 10 p.m. – which Monica said was the typical dinner hour in Spain, even without a hurricane. Apparently, she couldn’t cook a lick herself, despite her mother’s job as a teacher to younger chefs. The skill had skipped her and her younger brother, while catching hold with the three eldest siblings.

The next morning, with further deluge still threatening, we turned into castaways on a desert island, tearing at the food in the refrigerator as if we’d been out in the elements all night rather than tucked cozily in our respective beds.

But as the day wore on, and we remained trapped, waiting, for what more we did not know, I began to go slightly mad, and before reason could grab hold of me, I began cooking as if my life depended on it. No piece of food went untouched. Whatever was there, I turned it into something. Guacamole. Tzatziki. Spanish gazpacho. Mexican chocolate ice cream. Nectarine-mojto pie. I was a whirling dervish of rolling pins and spatulas.

Nectarine-mojito pie. Take Martha Stewart's peach pie recipe, substitute nectarines, and marinate with rum, mint, and lime.

By the time I was done, there was enough food to feed a small army, not two solitary women trying to watch their summer weight for a few weeks more. What would we do? If we ate it all ourselves, surely we would have arrived post-storm two sizes bigger than we began. Then again, perhaps we needed to conserve. Who knew how long we’d be without another infusion of comestibles.

But just then, we heard a knock at the door, and standing outside were two unexpected guests, friends from afar who had travelled through the storm to see if we were okay. We invited them in and offered them sustenance. Soon a party atmosphere took over.

The Hurricane Singers.

The Lillet and sangria flowed. And, before we knew it, we were singing to God and the heavens, asking to be spared. Save us Yahweh. For we know not what we have done. We have been gluttonous with gazpacho and sangria and nectarine-mojito pie and Mexican chocolate ice cream. Oh, please, thou Anointed One, let us see daybreak the same dress size as how we beganeth the day. Forgive us, Lord, for we know not what we have cooked.

And lo, our prayers were answered. And She was good. And our basement was spared from water damage. Later, we wandered the streets of Red Hook looking to see how others had fared, and found many not so lucky.

A flooded basement in Red Hook.

We prayed for their safe recovery and secretly offered thanks to the sky. Had they been gorging themselves on chips and beer, we wondered? But their kitchens held their own secrets, and it was left to us to imagine what had transpired.

What happened in THAT Red Hook kitchen?

Recipe: Spanish Gazpacho
Serves: 4-6
Preparation Time: 15 minutes

Monica's Spanish gazpacho. And a sunflower to ward off more rain.

Ingredients:

1 1/4 pounds very ripe, plum tomatoes – 630 grams
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons diced cucumber – 28 grams
1/4 cup diced green pepper – 53 grams
4 ounces olive oil – 118 millilitres
2 ounces red wine vinegar – 59 millilitres
Optional: Croutons (fresh or slightly stale bread brushed with olive oil and baked briefly in oven to crisp)

1. Roughly dice tomatoes into small cubes.
2. Place all ingredients except for olive oil and vinegar in a bowl or blender.
3. Blend with a hand mixer or in the blender until smooth.
4. Add olive oil followed by red wine vinegar. Blend again to emulsify. Approximately 1 to 2 minutes.
5. Top with croutons and a drizzle of olive oil.
6. Allow gazpacho to chill for a few hours to enrich flavor.
7. Serve cold or slightly chilled.

To take a spiritual tour of Brooklyn with one of our visitors, check out Dr. Kevin Dann’s Time Spirit Tours Web site.

Waves hit the shore in Red Hook.