The simple things resonate the most

So I don’t have a *ton* of data to support this based on all the work I’ve been doing to support YmF via social media, but what seems to be the resonating theme across what gets the most engagement and interaction is that the simpler something is, the more it seems to garner intrigue. When I first made my lavender syrup for coffee video, I never really imagined it being my most-watched video for the last year. And today, when I posted a couple short Instagram stories about making chai, or Indian spiced tea, I was surprised by the number of direct messages I received regarding how I make mine, what spices do I use, what proportion of milk to water do I use, what tea brand do I recommend?

To me, chai is one of the most basic preparations and something that, since the pandemic began, I’ve been making about once a week, if not more. It’s a delicious, soothing, rich (but not “bad” for you) treat that feels like an indulgence because of how all the flavors meld into a luxurious drink, but it’s insanely simple to prepare. My default and favorite version just has two spices: fresh smashed ginger and whole green cardamom pods, along with a 1:1 ratio of water to milk (usually cow or Oatly) along with some Dilmah Ceylon tea bags. After having many different kinds, I realized this was my very, very favorite while in India, and it’s also known as “Bombay chai.” Occasionally I’ll throw in a cinnamon stick, some fennel seeds, and a whole clove, but ginger and cardamom are my two loves in chai.

Chai time is like self-care time for so many. I hope that I can convey how easy it is to make so many things that people think are a reach for them, but just take a few ingredients and 10-15 minutes to make like this.

Non-Indian who loves Indian food

I was having a chat with one of my Instagram/blogger friends, and she marveled how fascinated she was by my mere existence, how “I’ve never met or known any non-Indian who is as interested in Indian food as you are. You know and cook more Indian food than many Indians!” She told me that she talked about me and my posts a lot with her Indian husband, who was also born and raised for most of his childhood in India. “She’s a non-desi, but she makes every Indian dish! I don’t think it’s possible for her to fail making anything Indian!” she exclaimed to him.

It’s like the e-mail thread I’ve been on with Chris’s mom’s cousin about how to make appam. I had repeatedly failed at getting the right texture and look, and so what originally started as an appam recipe exchange morphed into a “what is your favorite Jasmine rice brand?” to “do you want the all-time best Kerala chicken stew recipe from a Syrian Christian”? discussion. I love, love these conversations so much.

These conversations generally only happen with people who are super food obsessed down to the last grain of rice or the last gram of spice. Chris’s aunt also marveled over my attention to detail at making idlis from scratch: “I just buy the ready-made batter!” she said. I could even hear her voice through the email. Yep, I am a perfectionist. If you’re going to do something, you better do it all the way, otherwise just stop altogether.

Social media friends

Since I’ve become more active on social media to support YmF, I’ve had all kinds of fun, interesting interaction with other food vloggers and small business owners, many of whom have suggested that we meet up at some point in this COVID-19 global pandemic. Of the friends I’ve made to date, only a tiny handful are as passionate about food and how it’s intertwined with culture the way I am. Through Instagram and YouTube, I’ve been able to connect with people who are just as obsessed and passionate as I am.

One woman I’ve met is a small business owner who is currently running an ice cream business out of her home kitchen, churning small batches of desi-inspired ice cream flavors and delivering them to residents across the New York City area. She’s ethnically Chinese, but her grandparents actually immigrated from Indonesia to the U.S., so culturally, they are very Indonesian. She also married an ethnically Indian man originally from Delhi, so there’s so many cultural layers to their union. Another woman is based in Jersey City but originally from New Delhi, and we’ve had many long Instagram chats about cooking different dishes, ingredients, and our mutual love of chai.

The blogger/vlogger world, though I’m still quite new to it, has been very interesting and fun to be a part of. Through this, I can finally start meeting like-minded people who get as excited and giddy about food, culture, and travel as I do. While working in tech has had many benefits and I’ve met lots of incredibly smart, talented, and good humans through it, the food world is altogether a very different place; it almost feels just more core to me and what I care about.

Mortar and pestle basil pesto

I’d always been curious and thought about buying a mortar and pestle. I’d seen it used in so many cuisines, from Vietnam to Thailand to Mexico and across South American and African cuisines. Yet I’d put off buying one for so long, thinking that I wouldn’t use it very much. And since I live in Manhattan, space has always factored in as an issue, as a mortar and pestle is something I’d want on display in my kitchen. I finally sucked it up a couple months ago and bought one, and on average since then I’ve used it about once a week, which is pretty darn good for a kitchen item I had hesitated on for so long. I’ve used it to crush whole, toasted spices, mash sauces, smash ginger and garlic, and today, I’ve finally used it for pesto.

Since I first watched Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat Netflix series and read her book by the same name, I knew I had to try my hand at making pesto with a mortar and pestle. Before I watched this, I had never really thought about the mechanics of how a mortar and pestle is different than a food processor. I’d only ever made pesto with a food processor. So to learn and think about the fact that a food processor, with a metal blade that rips and shreds ingredients, would yield a different texture and taste vs. a mortar and pestle, which crushes individual cells to release aromatic compounds, was quite fascinating and made me think about how to do this myself.

So I tried it today and filmed a video on it, and the end result was what I suspected; the taste and texture were far, far superior to pesto made in a food processor. It really could not be compared; it was thicker, creamier, chunkier, and so much nuttier and richer in taste and scent. It was certainly an arm workout, as it took a very long time to fully crush the basil leaves, but all that work was worth it. I think I’m ruined on regular pesto from here on out.

The wonderful world of pancakes

I think it’s pretty safe to say that every child loves pancakes. There’s something about a little round edible, pan-fried blob that is comforting, appealing, and delightful to all. The amazing thing about pancakes is that they can come in all shapes and sizes, and it seems like most cultures have their own variations. In the U.S., there’s the standard cake-batter-type pancake ranging from fluffy buttermilk, blueberry and fruit filled, and corn griddled pancakes. In Jewish culture, the fried potato pancakes that are known as latkes are hard to not love (who doesn’t like fried things?!). China has its most famous scallion pancakes, but many other variations of pancakes exist as well, from “chive boxes” to the thin wheat crepes that traditionally roll Peking duck. In Vietnam, the closest thing I can think of would be banh xeo, better known as Vietnamese sizzling crepes, and in India… there are so many versions, some of which I’m just learning about, ranging from dosa to adar to cheela to pesarattu.

I’d made dosa a number of times on my own, but it never occurred to me to attempt a version of it without rice and urad dal, but that’s where Pesarattu comes in. Pesarattu is the Andhra Pradesh’s answer to pancakes in a ground lentil form. Some add a little rice or rice flour for texture, but many are just 100 percent green whole moong dal without any rice added. The only things that are added to it are ginger and perhaps a few spices, and that’s it. Pan-fried on a hot pan, they are extremely delicious, especially when eaten with a peanut and/or coconut based chutney. I’ve already made these twice now and am pretty obsessed with them. I’m trying to find every which way to use beans, as they are one of the healthiest and most delicious foods on earth, and our diets can only get better with them.

Pho ga in Instant Pot

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that although I have owned an Instant Pot for two years now, I still haven’t used it to make one of my all-time favorite dishes in the world, pho — not the chicken kind, not the beef kind — neither kind. I’m not sure why I’ve procrastinated on this. Part of it was because I still cannot find a a reasonably priced source for beef and oxtail bones for beef pho. The second part is that I tend to always want to try new things, and because I’ve already made chicken pho (pho ga) the traditional way so many times, I deprioritized it.

I finally made pho ga today in the Instant Pot, making some changes on the spices to the Serious Eats’ version that takes 20 minutes at high pressure in the Instant Pot. It was incredibly easy, very little work, and was so, so satisfying. Noodle soup is one of those ultimate comfort foods for me since I grew up eating with it, but for Chris, he prefers noodles separate to soup. He loves noodles. He loves soup. He doesn’t necessarily love them together most of the time. But when he had a bowl of this, he admitted that this turned out very good.

All I need to make this are chicken drumsticks, which I can buy organic and reasonably priced at Trader Joe’s. And now that the quarantine restrictions are loosening in New York City, I can more comfortably go to Trader Joe’s without waiting in a long, slow line to get in. This is win-win!

Pan pizza

There have really only been two good things that have come out of quarantine for me in the last 4-plus months: more time to cook and experiment with new recipes, and more time to video edit and upload to my YouTube channel. One recipe that has long been on my to-make list is the Serious Eats pan pizza recipe: I have a cast iron pan and an oven, and once you have yeast, this attempt is a no-brainer. I started the pizza dough the day before to allow for a 24-hour proof, which would yield a tastier, more complex base, and also adjusted it to 30% whole wheat flour (in an attempt to eat more whole grains). I used slightly less olive oil on the pan (2 tsp vs. 1-2 Tbsp) to avoid any difficult oven cleanup after, and dusted my kneading station with semolina flour instead of all-purpose. I topped the pizza with homemade tomato sauce, shredded mozzarella, pre-roasted king oyster mushrooms from the day before, basil, and grated parmigiano reggiano cheese. After finishing it over the stove for a few minutes to crisp up… this was the perfect first-attempt of pan pizza. I can totally see myself making this more regularly than.. once ever. It was crispy, flavorful, and so, so satisfying.

Pan pizza on a Monday. That would normally never happen on a regular work week.

No-churn homemade mango ice cream

A few years ago as a birthday present, Chris’s brother gave me a single scoop ice cream maker. It is literally a bowl that you freeze, and once you add your ice cream mixture to it, you constantly rub the mixture against the frozen bowl, and that creates the “churn” that makes the cream into iced cream. Well, that wasn’t particularly efficient given I literally had to make the equivalent of one scoop a day to get to my full batch over the course in 1.5 weeks, but it was still tasty: the only homemade ice cream (strawberry) I’d ever made. Chris wasn’t satisfied with the total lack of efficiency, so I haven’t used it since.

Then, with all the nearly overripe mangoes we’ve been accumulating in the last week, I decided to figure out another mango dessert to make with the puree, and I came across a recipe on the Milk and Cardamom blog for no-churn mango ice cream. You basically whip up heavy cream and fold in mango puree into it, then freeze the mixture for a few hours, then blend it up in a blender to get nice, creamy scoops. I changed up the recipe by adding in two teaspoons of warmed milk and a half teaspoon of crushed saffron with a pinch of sugar. It’s currently freezing in the freezer right now, and I’m looking forward to seeing the end result. You can’t really go wrong with mangoes, cream, a squeeze of lime, a tablespoon of sugar, a touch of milk and some decadent saffron, right?

Small batch fudge brownies

I’ve made banana bread twice during shelter-in-place the last four months: vegan buckwheat banana bread and sourdough walnut banana bread. The problem, though, is that although we enjoyed both, it was just too much for the two of us. We cannot share with friends, neighbors, or colleagues given everyone is under lockdown, and sharing food may be questionable despite evidence showing that food is not a common way to spread the virus. So we end up having to eat everything, and everything, even the most delicious things, have diminishing marginal utility. The bites just get worse the more you eat them.

So I was intrigued when one of the food blogs I follow posted a recipe for small batch fudge brownies. While brownies are typically baked in an 8 inch-by-8-inch pan, that’s… quite a large number of brownies, and can be quite tiresome to eat between two people. This blogger created a fudge brownie using 80 grams of dark chocolate in a loaf pan, so about half the size as usual. I immediately jumped on the idea, especially after I found exactly 80 grams of 75 percent chocolate in our fridge remaining from our Colombia trip last May. This would be a delicious way to finally use the last Colombian chocolate we brought back from that delicious trip.

The brownies came together quite quickly and baked in just 15 minutes. After allowing them to cool, I admired their shiny, glossy sheen. I took a bite and WOW — this is dark fudgey chocolate brownies at their darkest and fudgiest. I had Chris try one, and he was… a bit blown away by the intensity of the chocolate. I mean, it IS 75 percent cacao from Colombia, and that is all the chocolate that is in there — no fillers, no fluff.

It seems like a cocoa-powder brownie might be better for my chocolate and brownie loving husband — a little less intense but still chocolatey.

Spice junkie

I am a total spice junkie. It’s a good thing in that I like to experiment and try out different spices and flavors. It’s a bad thing in that once you have so many spices, you forget about some and then they can get stale. One of the first things I did when we moved into this apartment was install spice liners for my spice drawer in our kitchen. I knew it would not be big enough to hold ALL my spices, so I also designated part of one of the fridge drawers for spices, particularly for ones that may be more likely to go off. It’s gotten quite unwieldy, and it still gets quite messy since I can’t always keep track of what I have in the drawer, so I still need to find a better way to organize it.

While digging in the pantry, though, I stumbled upon the rose bird buds I bought a while back to make a pistachio-almond-cardamom rose birthday cake for Chris’s mom when she was in town one year. I never actually used the rose buds for anything other than that cake, and after smelling them, I realized that they were still quite fragrant. So I made a rose sugar syrup out of them using 1 cup sugar to 1 cup water, and then half a cup of packed rose buds. I boiled the sugar and water, added the rose buds, simmered for ten minutes, then allowed to cool. Then, I strained the rose buds out and emptied the rose syrup into a glass jar. I added about two tablespoons into a cup with two squeezed lemons, a handful of ice, and some sparkling water to make rose lemonade — floraly, refreshing, and delicious. This syrup could easily go well with coffee, tea, cocktails, and other similar beverages.

Spices have a longer shelf life than we think; we just need to implement the smell test on them before using them.